By Clinton Etheridge
It was bittersweet leaving Gambia in summer 1972 as the first Black Peace Corps volunteer in country. Even then, I knew I had just experienced two of the best years of my life: seeing Africa from the bottom up and giving back as a math teacher.
In 1970 at the start of my two years in Peace Corps, Hayib Sosseh, my best Gambian friend and fellow Latrikunda School teacher, had welcomed me into his African world as if I were a long lost brother. I spent long hours and weekends at Hayib’s compound in the capital Banjul—sleeping overnight, eating communally, and drinking ataya (an African tea that men drink as they sit around the compound and talk).
As I bonded with my Gambian friends, I found they had the same dreams and hopes and fears as Americans. I shared this common humanity with my Gambian friends, even though I was born and raised in one of the world’s richest countries and they in a land of extreme poverty.
As I was leaving in 1972, many Gambian friends were saying to me, “Clinton, doo fi ñówati waay?” This literally translates from the local Wolof language as, “Clinton, you won’t be coming back here anymore, will you?”
But in saying this, my friends were using a Gambian figure of speech, which means, ”Clinton, we’re going to miss you!”
I fell in love with Gambia years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer even though I learned, with anguished disappointment, that too much time and space had separated me and my African-American ancestors from Africa.
After two years in Africa, I couldn’t run away from the fact that I had to be what I was, an American.
So I returned to the United States, where I ended up earning a Stanford MBA, marrying and raising a family, and pursuing a career in commercial banking.
Yet that 1972 farewell refrain haunted me for close to 40 years. “Clinton, doo fi ñówati waay.” “Clinton, you won’t be coming back here anymore, will you?” ”Clinton, we’re going to miss you!” For I too missed Gambia and my Gambian friends.
I yearned to go “back to Africa” and finally did so in July 2011 with my granddaughter Brianna and my three adult children. On this family pilgrimage, my family met the Gambian Vice President and the Gambian Tourism Minister at State House.
My family also visited neighboring French-speaking Dakar, Senegal, the closest point on the African continent to the Americas. In Dakar harbor lay Goree Island and the infamous Slave House with its “Door of No Return”—the last foothold captured Africans had on the Motherland before embarking on the Middle Passage and into slavery on an American plantation.
So in July 2011, standing in the “Door of No Return” at the Slave House in Dakar harbor (with family nearby, overcome with emotion and close to tears) I gave a resounding “yes” to “Clinton, doo fi ñówati waay?” Yes, I have come back!