Sunday, May 24, 2009
In the last four months I have experienced both the joys and sorrows of the Gambian people. However, even though I’ve seen two funerals since I’ve been here, I saw one of the hardest funerals I’ve ever seen on friday. On Monday at around noon I walked into Sr. Odile’s office and she had a little shrine with a lit candle and pictures of Jesus and Blessed Mother Rivier set up at a small table in the corner of her office. I had just gone in to ask her a small question and she mentioned to me that she was praying for her 22 year old nephew, James who was having stomach surgery that day. I guess he had been sick over the last while and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his stomach so they were doing surgery. From what I gathered, the surgery was supposed to be very minor and that there shouldn’t have been any complications. I said to sister that I hoped things went well and that I would pray that surgery went well. I went to my classroom and at around 1:00pm Sister came into my classroom to tell me that she was leaving because James was up and out of surgery and he had been asking for her. She had a big smile on her face and I was happy that things went well. Later on in the day Sister Cecile and Sister Susan had first communion so I dropped them off at the church and I went to the internet. When I got back, Sister Cecile told me the news. I guess right after I left, Sister Catherine came straight to the church to tell the sisters that in the afternoon something went wrong and James had died. Everyone was shocked. The sisters quickly cancelled the rest of class and we all went home to get ready to leave to visit the family. Nina and Saba came along too, since I think they knew him very well. I remember James coming to the house once or twice and even though I didn’t know him well, everyone in the house and the compound said that he was such a nice person and that everyone liked him. The truck ride was a very quiet one and when we got to the compound it was already dark out. In Canada, when we hear someone has passed away we don’t normally go and sit with the family to console them, at least not like this. The compound was full of chairs wrapping around the house and the entire compound. There was a big tent set up for people to sit under and many people were just sitting there saying nothing. I think the idea is just to be with the family as support. It’ s not that you should say anything, just to have the presence is enough. I just assume that’s how it is. When we arrived we went straight into the house to see the family and Sr. Odile. We met the father outside and even though he was not crying, he seemed very sad. The mother was sitting inside on a couch with many ladies sitting around her saying nothing. The room was very quiet and each of us greeted her and gave our sympathies and we all just sat down on the chairs in the room. All the other sisters from Banjul, Serrekunda, and Fajara were all there and that was who mostly sat in the room with the family. I felt blessed to be a part of the crowd. The rest of the family was in the next room and it was very quiet. We all just sat there as many people came in to greet the family. Like I’ve said in previous writings that when there is a funeral many people cry and weep and even though it was pretty quite there were moments when family members would come into the house and start crying very loudly. Some days you wonder whether its an act to show the family how much you care. For the most part we really just sat and prayed with the family. It was an experience I was so grateful to see because it’s not like that at home. The ride home was even more quiet than when we were going and as we said good bye to the family tears began to form in my eyes. It was hard for me to see such a close family lose such a young man. It was hard not to cry realizing how sacred life is and how my family members could pass away just like that too. And I think that the Gambian people here really see what a gift life is. We got home and everyone went to bed.
The rest of the school week was pretty mixed up since Wednesday was a holiday for all the school kids in the Gambia. I’m not sure if I’ve explained this before but once every year the President does a “meet the people” tour where he goes around the whole country trying to meet the people. What the kids from each school do is dress up in their school uniform (washed and ironed) and they stand by the side of the road. Along with meeting the people the president throws cookies (or biscuits as everyone calls them) to the kids. I wish I could say that we actually “met” the president but what we witnessed was far more hilarious than I thought it was going to be. Because the kids had the day off and because Anne Marie Rivier School (AMR) is about a 5 minute drive south of Brikama the teachers thought that it would be a great if we actually went to the roadside by the school instead of just going in town with the rest of the kids. The other kids don’t necessarily stand by their school since it might not be on the road where the President is passing. So some places get quite packed with people and we thought we’d have the best chance to get him to stop if we were the only school visible there. So at around noon that day we picked all the kids up in the bus and brought them to the school where we waited and waited for the President to pass. The kids had a few things to eat but definetly not a lunch meal and as we waited the kids sang songs and waved tree branches until most of them were tired. The sun was blazing and most of us adults had to try to find some shade to sit under while we waited what was supposed to be maybe an hour to two hours for the president to arrive. Sr. Catherine was sure that he would stop since he has the utmost respect for Catholic sisters. He was educated by the Presentation sisters and they say that whenever he sees a religious sister in a habit he stops to say hello. So Sr. Catherine was amongst the crowd of children as we waited. Like I said, I wish that we could’ve met the president but at around 5pm the Army and the President blew past us at Mac speed throwing boxes of biscuits to the kids! It took about….oh….30 seconds for it all to happen and I think I would be lying if I said that both the teachers and students weren’t disappointed. I barely got to take a video of him never mind catch a cookie flying at me. So the day had been long. We had waited for a 30 second glimpse of the President for almost 5 hours. What I will say is that the kids were excited for the biscuits and we shared them amongst all of them. The kids got back on the bus and we all headed home for the day.
The next day we were heading home from school in the afternoon and it turns out that the President was passing in the other direction which – fortunate for us – was right past the sisters house! We drove into the yard and everyone went to wait by the side of the road. The president didn’t end up showing up for a few more hours but what I can say when he did pass is that it felt like I got caught in the middle of crowd in a Bull Race. I was with the hostel girls and when the president was coming all we heard were sirens and people screaming. I all of a sudden we got a glimpse of the Black Hummer and the President had a huge box of biscuits over his head to throw. We were standing trying to take video when an enormous wave of people hit us. Good thing there were quite a few of us or else we would’ve gotten trampled. It was kind of scary but it was really cool. All this for a stupid biscuit. We didn’t end up getting any but we ran with the back of the crowd for a little bit until we hit the craft market(around a 5 minute walk from the house). Echen was standing on the side of the road watching all of this so I went to stand with them to look at the aftermath of it all. All we saw when we looked at the streets was broken tree branches and boxes that had biscuits in them. I was in complete shock that all of this was happening all at once but I can assure you I had a smile on my face the entire time. It was an incredibly cool thing to witness.
Thursday evening was the prayers for James and when we arrived at the church it was packed full with people and that is not a small church. Both the prayers and the funeral were held at St. Teresa’s church in Kanifing (which is right near Serrekunda) since James had been very active in the parish there. It was so sad but yet we were praying for James soul that he would go to heaven and I think many people we still sad but knew that he was in a better place.
Friday was the day of the funeral for James and since we had school until noon, the sisters decided to close the school early so that everyone could have lunch, get ready and go to the funeral. There were even some of the young kids from school that came to show their support for Sr. Odile. The church was packed again. Fr. Tony celebrated the mass and many friends went up to say how much James had blessed their lives. There was one particular young gentleman who went up to share about James. He was James’ best friend and they were talking about how excited they were for his (the best friend) upcoming birthday. They had made big plans as to how they were going to celebrate the big day. James was having surgery just before his birthday and he was hoping that things would go ok. He just kept talking about how excited they were about celebrating his birthday and when James ended up dying he said, “what I didn’t realize was that instead of celebrating my birthday today, I’m burying my best friend.” It was so shocking to everyone and I felt so bad for this young guy since he could barely get the story out since he was crying so much. Like I said, I didn’t know James very well, I had only met him once but what I heard from the many people that were at his funeral, was that he was an incredibly generous, talented and fun person. It seemed as though he was very active in his parish and he had many friends. The family was very sad. When mass was finished and we headed out to go to the cemetery for the burial, the traffic to get out of the church parking lot was so hectic. Once we finally got out guess what stopped us…the President passing us right next to the church. Everyone was so frustrated. No we didn’t get to “meet” the President but we waited for him so much over the past week that we felt like we knew him almost personally. We ended up sitting waiting for a good half hour and by the time we reached the cemetery the burial had just finished. Sister Cecile and I tried to see if we could catch the end of it but we only reached half way when we saw people turning back to go toward their cars. There were so many people, I honestly couldn’t believe it. This young man was definitely very loved. So we walked back to the car and went back to the family compound where the tent was still up and the chairs were full of people. We don’t do this at home but the traditional custom at funerals here is to console the family. The entire family. So I found myself following behind the sisters shaking the hands of about 50 family members. I guess it’s a big thing to just show your sympathy to the family. And, I’m sure that part of it is to show that you came so that if you or your family members die that they would show up at your funeral too. That’s a very big thing, Gambians have the thought that if you have a lot of people show up for your funeral that you were a very loved person. It’s very supportive but interesting at the same time. After we went through the line of family members we received a bag full of food. This is another custom…giving charity. The family members of a deceased person are to give charity or alms on the day of the funeral, 10 days, 40 days and one year after the funeral. I’m not exactly sure why they do this but I assume that it’s just to give back to the community.
While we were going through the line of family members I ended up seeing my friend John. John was the guy who came to Dakar with us. I only had the chance to say a quick hello to him since he was video taping the funeral and gathering. We left Serrekunda and headed back to Brikama for the evening. When we got home I went to sit with the girls. Everyone seemed to be pretty sad about the whole thing. They had known James pretty well since he had come by the house to visit Sr. Odile often. We sat and talked for a bit and then I went to bed.
Yesterday the sisters and I were all invited by Father Gabisi to his mother’s 80th birthday party in Serrekunda. I really didn’t know much about it until that morning but we went for around noon where the party started out with mass. When we walked into the compound, there was a big sign saying, “Happy Birthday Rebecca!” and tons of balloons all around the yard. There was a big tent set up with plastic chairs underneath it and we sat in plastic chairs underneath a mango tree. It was really nice. Mass was beautiful. There were so many people that I knew or at least recognized I actually surprised myself. The Bishop was there as well as many priests, the choir from our parish in Brikama was there as well as many people from Brikama. And one person who I was surprised to see was John. John and Father are very close so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him although seeing him twice in such a short period of time was kind of neat. For the rest of the afternoon, everyone sat around eating good food and drinks and talking with one another. I met one of Father’s brothers and I spent some time talking with some of the people from Brikama until John came to give me trouble. Haha. John and I have trouble each other since we got to know each other on the trip from Dakar. It’s common to see us arguing and laughing when we see each other. He is in the St. Teresa’s choir and he invited me to their upcoming concert. We spent the majority of the time laughing and having fun and I promised that I would make it out to the concert. We exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch. The last person I met as we were leaving was Mrs. Gabisi. From what I’ve heard from the Brikama Parish as well as Father Gabisi, Rebecca Gabisi is extremely funny. Everyone says that’s where Father gets his humor and we know that when you spend time with Father GAbisi, you’re sure for a good laugh. Even though it was a brief meeting it was very nice to have met her.
This week has definitely been one long week and as much as I wish I could say the next week is going to slow down I know its not going to. My friend Joshua Thorn from Milwaukee, Wisconsin is coming on Monday for a 3 month stay and it’ll be a week full of teaching him the ropes around here. I know I really haven’t said much about him, but I’m sure you’ll hear a lot about him in the coming months.
I met Josh at a friends wedding and one day we got on the topic of what career plans were for the future and I had mentioned to him that I was on my way to The Gambia, Africa to work with the Presentation Sisters and the instant that I told him he said that he was in. It was a long process to just see if he could come since he’s in the US Army and you can’t just take 6 months off when ever you want. I also wasn’t just inviting him without having the permission from sister so the factors really didn’t pan out until around the middle of April. Things have worked out now and Josh is on his way out here to work for the sisters in the Poultry and I’m sure a bit in the school. We’ll see how everything works out! I’m glad to have an American friend on board. So the next you hear from me will probably include an introduction of Josh and how his first experience is of this place. I’m anxious to see it.
Much Love In Jesus and Mary,