With diamonds on the soles of her shoes

I purchased a new pair of Doc Martens on Neal Street in London as a doctoral present to myself when I procured the position at SOAS. Since I came straight to the UK after leaving fieldwork in Burkina last year, I only had my one pair of shoes, Vibram, which were falling apart as they only last one field season. This left me with no choice but to walk for hours on end in my new docs while flat hunting, getting lost, and discovering the city. As anyone who wears docs knows, I suffered some severe blisters. Now, after almost a year of living and working in London, the docs are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever had. Not only are they, as their motto proclaims, like walking on air, I’m proud of their condition because I earned that ease. Not only in name, but also in practice, those docs stand for the hard work that I’ve done to earn my PhD and acquire the dream job and lovely life I’m now experiencing.

In place of the Pink Palace I had to abandon in Notting Hill, today I’m in the midst of my new home, an area known as ‘Le Royaume’, The Kingdom. While our project base remains in the nearby village Brin, I will conduct a majority of my fieldwork here in the village of Essil, from which my colleague and friend Serge Sagna is from. Today I’m also with Sam, who’ll be conducting some of her sociolinguistic interviews here for her own thesis. We’ll ride along the rice fields up to Seliky later this afternoon to stay over night at a campement there that we hear is paradise like as every place here is!

Those of you who have done or are doing fieldwork will appreciate that my new collaborator here in Essil has spent ten years working with SIL to translate the entire New Testament of the Bible into his language, Jóola Banjal. Suffice it to say, he’s perfect.

As is the village. Interestingly, this area, The Kingdom, which encompasses about ten villages, though being only 7km from Brin, appears to be linguistically, culturally, and socially distinct from there and its close neighbour, Djibonker. Our project, The Crossroads, was thus named because of the intersection between these three areas. Their interactions are fascinating to linguists because of the lack of a clear delineation among the languages. As in any city or even town, one is used to hearing a large variety of languages, but in Brin and Djibonker, within a conversation one hears upwards of ten languages! But the reason for this microcosm of Babel is not solely due to comprehension; each of these people is fluent in each of the ten languages. Rather, the motivations swing between inclusion and exclusion of identity and culture, or to specific references, and many other complex factors that we have yet to comprehend but seek to understand.

However, in The Kingdom, the situation remains more similar to those I’ve experienced in other places in West Africa. A common misconception concerning Africa is that there is a common tongue as in the United States. Far be it from reality, not only does each country not have one language, though there is often some lingua franca, more often it is the case that a particular village will be associated with a specific language. Even among linguists this may seem surprising to those who would think that each ethnicity has but one language. Among the Dogon, for example, there are 20 languages, among the Jóola here, there are probably about 10. Dialects then are counted exponentially. Often, though, a village will mostly communicate within its bounds in one single language, but then each inhabitant will speak many others depending on his or her needs to communicate outside the village or with other groups who visit. Such seems to be the case in Essil at the very least.

The confusion for me at least lies in the fact that both Brin and Essil consider themselves to be of the same group, Jóola, although they do speak different, though similar, languages. Djibonker, on the other hand, speaks the related, but more distantly so, Gubhereer. The geographic distance between the villages is comparable, yet they are much less connected. The Kingdom is ruled by one king, though they have not had someone in the palace for forty years. They await a sign from God to appoint a new one, someone chosen from between two of the villages alternately from one’s reign to the next. It’s Essil’s turn and while they wait, a woman lives nearby the forsaken palace to keep it up. Certainly the fact that the job is difficult plays a factor in its vacancy; the king is never permitted to leave his compound and rarely even his house. He may only go as far as an intermediary shelter when the villages require his decision on a very important issue and even then he only gives his answer and returns.

Other Jóola areas also have a King but not Brin. Granted, the presence of a large paved road that leads to the city of Zuiginchor, a mere 7km from Brin, certainly provides access and influence that isn’t found in the kingdom, but then the unpaved but very well maintained dirt road through it doesn’t hinder it either. Another factor is the resistance of Islam or perceived Islamisation; most people in Essil do not or will not speak Wolof whereas everyone in Brin does easily and often. Cattle are not trusted to Fulani herdsmen. The only cultivated crop is rice, but it is diminishing its returns as the soil is becoming saltier and sandier as the ocean is close and the rains are not as plentiful as they once were. Though we visited a large women’s garden with corn planted by a European for some curiously unknown purpose which had been generously funded by an NGO who built a fence and installed an irrigation system with solar panels, the people were forced to water by hand from nearby wells because of the same water table problem. Other crops such as millet or sorghum are not planted here because, “they’re not part of our culture”.

While the youth maintain the mandatory exodus found among village communities all over the world, the difference here is that they frequently return for visits. Especially in The Kingdom, the speaking of Wolof is frowned upon, thus those who leave must also maintain their repertoire of Jóola speech and greetings. This again sets apart the villages of the kingdom from Brin and Djibonker.

When I first moved here, only a few weeks ago but as usual a seeming eternity, I again got bad blisters and a broken toe from the new pair of Vibram I purchased for this trip (and a mishap at our fancy hotel in Dakar ironically). Today, walking along the sea shell paved paths of Essil, I realize how good not only my feet, but also my back, and stomach that had been poisoned by a toxic barracuda. This life seems to tear one down and then build them back up better than before.

We met an elderly woman harvesting her rice. As there are no more youth in the village, the elderly are forced to carry on the work of the village and they’re in quite a hurry to do so before the cattle are allowed to enter the fields to graze. Upon meeting her, she asked how we’d come to arrive at the village. When we told her we’d come by bike, she was surprised. She exclaimed that isn’t it a punishment for a woman to ride a bike so far?! We laughed and replied that isn’t it equally punishable to cut rice under the burning sun all day? She also laughed and gave us one of her hard earned rice bundles.

The afternoon ride to our destination for the night at an inn in Seliky was sunny but quick. The reward for our arrival was worth every pedal turn. We spent the night in an impluvium, a style of house specific to the Jóola, but now being lost, the inn was built to pay homage to and illustrate the style to those who might not otherwise see it. I’ll have to include photos as internet permits as I’ve never seen anything like it thus I lack the words to describe this place. Suffice it to say that the full moon night was among the most magical I’ve experienced.

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