Joan Richter, wife of Dick Richter, an early Peace Corps Evaluator (1963–65), is herself an award-winning short story writer whose works have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and in themed anthologies. Also a freelance journalist and editor, she was a stringer for The New York Times‘ metropolitan section, and a contributing editor to Westchester Magazine. Joan also worked for American Express, publishers of Travel & Leisure and Food & Wine as director of public affairs. A specialist in tourism, she was the company’s representative to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. In her career, she has traveled to more than sixty counties in Africa, Europe and Asia.
She was consulted by Peace Corps/Washington on the role of staff wives overseas, stemming from her two years in Kenya where her husband, Dick, was the deputy director (1965–67). Along with their two small sons, they traveled throughout East Africa to visit PCVs before returning to the suburbs of New York. Joan and her husband live now in Issaquah, a suburb of Seattle. In this short essay, Joan tells a story that shows how all our worlds connect at some point along our way in life.
Finding Sanjally Bojang
by Joan Richer
TWENTY-NINE YEARS AGO I was on assignment for American Express to promote tourism and made a trip with my husband to The Gambia in West Africa. We were meeting up with a farmer named Sanjally Bojang whom I had learned about from Alex Haley who had visited Sanjally when he was tracing his ancestry that began, as we know, his book, Roots.
Recently Dick and I left Washington, D.C. and moved to the state of Washington and into a retirement community in Issaquah. Reading the community’s newsletter, I spotted a name among the employees that was startlingly familiar to me: Sanjally Bojang. When I had a chance, I asked the administrator about the man and her eyes lit up as she explained that Sanjally Bojang was one of the kindest people she had ever met, a man respected by the residents and co-workers. “His smile can brighten the cloudiest of days,” she told me.
Several days later Sanjally B., as he is known in the community, stopped by our apartment to introduce himself and I showed him a copy of an article I had written for The New York Times. It was published on August 18, 1980, with this headline: In Gambia, Mr. Bojang. The man we had met in Africa years ago was this man’s uncle.
In 1980 when Dick and I went looking for Sanjally Bojang, in The Gambia, we came upon a man with a sling shot in his hand watching the nests of yellow weaver birds in a cluster of palm trees. The man was standing guard over a field of maize, but he had time to direct us to Sanjally Bojang’s farmhouse where we found Sanjally waiting for us, sitting out on the front porch of his concrete-block home.
He was chief of his village, a man with two homes, one on the farm and one in his village, where his wives lived. A twinkle came into his eyes when he said that his wives took turns coming to stay with him. “It gives them a rest from their work and from each other.”
We toured his farm, walking past rows of cashew, mango and papaya trees, fields of sweet potatoes, and groundnuts (peanuts). He explained that his peanut crop had aroused the interest of farmers on the other side of the Atlantic, and showed us a letter on White House stationery. It was from the world’s most famous peanut farmer, President Jimmy Carter, inviting him to visit peanut farms in the United States. Mr. Bojang was obviously pleased, but it was unlikely he’d make the trip. “It is too difficult for a farmer to leave his crops and his land.”
He was particularly proud of two ponds on the farm, merely springs when he began clearing the land. It took years to dig them out and stock them with fish from the Gambia River. When he tossed a sweet potato vine onto the surface of the pond, it was clear that the fish were more than a meal to him. He watched with delight as a school of fish rose to tug and nibble.
It was surprising to see such sentiment in this strong muscular man. His broad chest and shoulders were testimony to his battle to clear the forest and turn it into arable land. He had started out with his bare hands, primitive tools and a pair of oxen, he said. It was clear he had developed a deep love of his land and great respect for the environment.
We asked about the man with the sling shot and the yellow weaver birds and Mr. Bojang explained that the lookout’s intent was not to kill, but to frighten off the lead bird and keep the other birds from following, and stripping the maize bare. A team of agricultural experts from overseas had visited his farm, he went on, and they told him that his means of policing the birds was not very efficient. The experts suggested he get rid of the birds for good. Let them fly into the maize field and into a net, they advised. Once trapped, set the net on fire.
Mr. Bojang shook his head. “I don’t like that kind of killing.” His gaze shifted and he smiled, and added shyly, “Besides, the birds were here before I came.”
Now, twenty-nine years later, when Dick and I moved from Washington, D.C. to the Pacific Northwest , we met the farmer’s name sake. Like his uncle, Sanjally Bojang is a man of great warmth and compassion. It is our good fortune to have known both men.