Author: Michelle Eames

Tooth Healer – Basse, Gambia

Tooth Healer

Basse, Gambia

“Hey Maimuna! In America the water comes from a pipe, and they have machines to wash clothes!” Haja lifted a small bucket of water fifteen feet from the bottom of the well, toes gripping the edge, arms swinging the rope with the grace of having done this since she was four. She used my village name, and spoke to me in Mandinka. My joking Gambian friend carried a frown as she pulled yet more buckets of water from the well to fill the large tub for laundry. I looked out at her from my chair under the mango tree, my book face down on my lap.

“Yes, Haja, American women are weak and we need all the help we can get.”
“Today I am weak. Next time you go to Banjul, bring me the machine.” Haja’s tongue bulged out into her cheek against her sore tooth.
“I can’t afford the machines in the capitol. I’m not even sure they have washing machines. And we don’t have electricity. I’ll get you an aspirin, instead.” I walked toward my two rooms at the end of Haja’s mud-brick house, thinking she had a cavity or an absess.

Back out on the porch I dipped a cup of water from the jibinda, the clay water jar. Haja walked up.
“Hey, Maimuna, Allah is great.” She took the pill and drank. “Abaraca,” she thanked me. “My tooth is paining me very much.”
“The aspirin will help. Are you cooking today, or is it Tako’s turn?” I asked, referring to her sister-in-law.
“Tako left for the market, she cooks today. Do you have soap?”
“A little.” I started a mental count of all the aspirin and bars of soap I had given away during my Peace Corps stint in the Gambia. I lost count, and looked up to see a green parakeet, long tail scissoring across the hazy sky. Haja finished the water. She adjusted her wrap around her waist, tucking the ends tight, ready to haul more water for washing.
“Wait, Haja, I’ll get the soap.”
Haja smiled tightly, and spat a clear stream of water between her teeth, landing it clearly on the red dirt.

Haja was beautiful, well padded and strong, with chocolate skin glowing in the sun. She tamed her thick black hair with oils, braids and wraps of bright cloth. For a few days Haja’s tooth had been hurting, her smile disappeared, and she barely laughed at my jokes. She worked anyway, pulling up well water, pounding rice and corn for meals, washing clothes, and weeding her groundnut field.

That night during the dark quiet time, after dinner and before bed, I heard Haja’s thongs slipping slowly along the concrete porch. She paused near my chair and said she was going to the tooth doctor the next day. Would I come along after the morning porridge? Of course, I answered, wondering about Gambian dentists. When I had a tooth ache I was sent to Dakar, a cosmopolitan city in Senegal, two days away by taxi and bus. The white dentist spoke French and English, he wore a clean lab coat, and he used modern equipment and drugs. I imagined what a dentist in Basse might be like: tools left over from colonial times, maybe only pliers to work with, and perpetually out of Novocaine.

The next morning Haja and I dressed in our nicest bright completos, complete outfits of wrap skirts, ornately sewn shirts, and matching head-wraps. I grabbed my cloth bag with water, some coins and some paper dalasis. Haja tied her money in the corner of her wrap skirt, and tucked it into the other side of her waist. We headed down the path, and stopped two compounds away to buy kola nuts at a wooden selling table. The old businessman sat in the shade of a mango tree and he wore a long tunic, gathered baggy pants, and a stocking cap. His pointy-toed yellow leather shoes had flattened heels for slipping his feet in easily. I offered two dalasis for kola nuts. He pulled the purple heart-shaped nuts from a packet of wrinkled brown paper, wedged in between the green tea, cans of sweetened milk, sugar, batteries, and candles. I picked six of the largest firmest nuts, and thanked him in Mandinka.

I split one of the nuts open along the crease, and shared half of the inch wide bean with Haja. We chewed on the crunchy bitter nut as we walked, savoring the caffeine. It was mid-morning. We wound through paths in our village of Kaba Kama in the warming sun, feeling a hint of the afternoon heat. The rainy season was nearly finished and the mud was gone. This time of the year the Gambia looked like a lush paradise, but patches of red dust and sand already warned us of the coming dry season when the Sahara would blow her winds and sands our way. As we walked our flip flops slapped rhythms on our heels. My feet immediately started sweating and gathering dust. Dirt rubbed like sandpaper between my flip flop and my toe; I hoped my callouses were thick enough to avoid blisters. Haja’s feet were clean and shiny. Gambians always were cleaner than me.

Gardens and family compounds were fenced during the growing season to keep goats and sheep out of the mangos, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and taro. We walked past tightly planted neem tree fences with sticks woven between the trunks. Neem berries smelled warm and yellow in the sun. We walked past split and woven bamboo fences. We walked past corrugated metal fences, shining hot. We walked past thick braided grass fences.

A climbing gourd plant covered a round house, draping like green lace over the conical thatched roof. There were long row houses with corrugate roofs, and one-room square houses. Families who could afford it painted their walls with bright pastels. All along the paths we heard women pounding in their large wooden mortars, drumming rice and spices for the mid-day meal. The air smelled of hot peppers, smoked fish, and fermented locust beans. Doves cooed from the mango trees.

Two village women returned from the Basse market. They balanced metal bowls on their heads with ingredients for the midday meal. One women carried rice, a ball of peanut butter, a Magi bullion cube, three bitter tomatoes, and two challo, a thin bony smoked fish. Her family will eat well: fish and peanut sauce on rice. The other woman carried okra and nebadyo tree leaves to make a green sauce.

“Haja, how is the work?” asked the first woman in Mandinka.
“We are on it, small small.”
“How are all the people of your family?”
“They are all there.”
“Where do you go?”
“We walk on a journey,” answered Haja.
“I hope there is peace.”
“Peace only.”

And then the women turned to me.
“Toubob, how are all the people of America?”, asked the woman, using the slang term for rich foreign person.
“They are all there,” I answered.
“Please greet them for me.”
“They will hear it.”
“May Allah make your road sweet.”
“Allah is great,” I answered, as they laughed at my correct greetings.

A donkey cart passed us with an eleven-year-old boy hauling a pile of firewood sticks in from the bush, one of the thick sticks held in his hand to goad the donkey into moving. Flies circled the oozing wounds on the donkey’s hips.

Rather than head into Basse as I expected, we turned toward the Gambia River and the ferry crossing. The noise of people at the busy crossing increased as we approached, as did the noise of kids running up to us and yelling “Toubob, Toubob, give me pen!” Haja scolded them in Mandinka, explaining that I lived here, get away. I barely noticed the kids. Their taunts were nearly constant in the Gambia.

The Basse ferry crossing was always busy. Businessmen transported their goods: kola nuts, tea, sugar, and 100 pound bags of rice marked “Food Aid” in red letters. Women crossed to shop or to sell mangos and vegetables. The ferry ran every two hours, but there was no need to wait for it unless you had a car, and only rich people and the government had cars. People on foot and motorcycles easily fit in the small fourteen-foot rusty metal boats.

Haja and I rested on a rock and waited for a boat. Three men muscled a herd of donkeys into several of the craft. About ten donkeys filled each of three boats like donkeys in sardine cans. A boy sculled another boat towards us from the far bank of the river. Men bathed naked in the river beside the ferry ramp, women bathed with thin cotton wraps covering waist to knee. A fisherman stepped onto his shallow dugout and balanced on, not in, the hollow in the wood hull. Fishermen are likely the bravest of the Gambians, since very few fishermen swim.

Behind us an empty two-story cement building stood guard, its paint faded, like the people’s memories of British rule. Bright kingfishers flew past and dove, and Marabou storks watched motionless from the top of a baobob tree. Flies teased us, and the water smelled like fish. Our boat arrived, and five women dressed in bright wax-print and indigo outfits stepped to shore and helped each other lift yard-wide bowls of mangos to their heads. They greeted Haja and I in Fula, and laughed as I stumbled through the rhythmic bouncing syllables of the three Fula greetings I knew.

Haja and I stepped through mud to the boat, gave our coins to the young oarsman, and sat on a forward bench, leaving room for others. I faced the opposite shore, waiting for the boat to fill. Across the river layers of trees, shrubs and vines draped to the water’s edge, and the rutted gravel road led straight up the bank and out of sight. I knew of no dentists, or even offices on that side of the river; there were only a few thatched houses and then scrub forest and fields for several miles.

“Haja, are you sure this is where your tooth doctor is?”
“Hey, Maimuna. The Serehule go to this place. He will help me.”
“The trip is very pleasant,” I remarked, trusting her. Haja was Serehule, from a large village near Basse. Her family seemed at once strictly religious, following the Muslim rules, but also truly African, still using ancient traditions. I looked forward to meeting the dentist the Serehule’s used. I sat back, and prepared to visit the quiet side of the river: few cars, few shops, and no theaters blaring Indian movies through blown speakers all night.

Ten minutes later at the opposite bank we slipped up beside the parked ferry, bow pushing into the soft mud. We stepped off the boat, adding additional mud color to my dirty feet. Haja led me up the bank and a short distance up the gravel road. We turned toward several thatched round-houses tucked into a thicket of thorn trees.

Haja spoke to an old woman on a stool in front of the fenced compound. A large goiter bulged out from the woman’s neck. She wore a tattered wrap around her waist, but no shirt here in her home compound. Her saggy breasts flopped like slightly filled water balloons as she laughed at me, and held out her hand. I greeted her, dropped a smooth purple kola nut into her hand, and accepted her blessings.

The woman directed us through an opening in the woven grass fence, where at Haja’s call a man stepped out of his hut. Haja quietly greeted him in Serehule. He wore a homespun cotton strip-cloth shirt with loose faded pants. An unkempt afro surrounded his dark face. Disturbing grey eyes tracked in opposite directions. He glanced sharply at me through one eye, taking in my white skin and new African clothes.

I greeted him quickly in Mandinka. “How is the morning?”
“It is here, only,” he answered back, surprised.
“I hope there is peace,” I said, having difficulty looking at his odd eyes.
“Peace,” he answered tersely, looking toward Haja.

Haja spoke to him in Serehule, touching her right cheek with her hand, keeping her eyes averted from his face. The man reached for her chin and squeezed her mouth open, peering in to see her teeth.

The healer then stepped into his hut where I saw him pull something dark from a worn wood box. He came out and motioned Haja to a low stool. Haja sat opposite him. The old woman brought another stool for me, then she went back to her spot outside the fence smiling and mumbling about toubobs and kola nuts. Ignoring her, the healer worked the dark clay-like substance in his hand, then began praying in Arabic. Guttural chanting erupted from deep in his throat as he waved open trembling hands above Haja’s body, then hovered around both cheeks. His chants became louder, interspersed with “Allah”, his wild eyes looking up, then at Haja’s cheek, then around to the side, arms swinging wide. Haja focused on his chin, then bowed her head as she listened to his words, answering his prayers with “Amin”, and touching one hand to her forehead. Movements, prayers, chants, and “Amins” repeated for several minutes, then the healer passed the clay into his left hand, and placed his empty right hand against Haja’s sore cheek, fingers folded into a cylinder with the base on her cheek. Placing his dry lips to his thumb and forefinger, he loudly sucked through the hole of his hand, pulled his head back and violently spat a wriggling maggot into his empty hand. He eyed the white worm with one confidant eye, then offered it to Haja. Haja stared at it, eyes wide, and rubbed her cheek.

After Haja paid the healer with kola nuts and dalasi bills she thanked him, and prayed for him and his family with lowered eyes. The old woman still sat outside; now she was shelling groundnuts on a woven bamboo mat. As we left she held up the kola nut we had given her, and laughed again, praying for our safe journey. We walked down the hill and took a small boat across the river.

“Haja, how is your tooth?” I asked as we left the mud and flies of the river bank.
“Better, small small,” she answered.
“That’s good, Haja. Did you know that there was a maggot in your cheek?”
“I did not know, but I am glad it is gone.”

We passed a four-year-old girl balancing a large full bucket of water on her head; no water sloshed onto her lean little body. I put my cloth bag on my head, and balanced it for thirty feet before it fell, the thump softened by Haja’s laughter.