As harvest season in my village here draws to a close, I have been spending much of my time out in the fields. The exact amount of corn I have shucked, cotton I have picked and peanuts I have pulled have been lost weeks ago, forgotten by all but my blistered fingers. However, one day, my sister told me that the next day was her and her husband’s “killay”. Killay in Pular roughly translates to “help”, so I was a little confused. Help…what?
Soon, the day of the killay arrived. We were up early, with the sun, cooking fire at the ready. My sister and I began preparing a very large amount of couscous, as my brothers collected baskets and my mother washed the baby and cooked a quick breakfast. As soon as the couscous was done, it was time to leave. We piled the food into a bowl and the six of us, as a procession, started walking out to the fields. Still not sure what a killay is, I followed at the back, wondering why exactly we just cooked so much couscous. As we approached the cotton field, there were already about thirty people there. Behind us, more were quickly approaching from the distance. Not just people from our village, but friends and family from neighboring villages, or even from villages not so close to ours. Greetings were exchanged, inquiries asked about friends not seen for a while. I soon realized what a killay was. Instead of a few immediate family members spending a month in the vast field picking cotton, everyone had come to help, so that the work could be finished as quickly as possible. Everyone had brought food. The sizes of the piles of couscous rivaled that of the mountains around us. There was so much cossant (curdled milk) that I could have swam in it. As small lake of sauce sat in a huge vat. Someone had brought a radio and bought batteries. Soon we were out in the field, picking cotton, a pretty even mix of Pulaar music and Rihanna playing over everyone’s chattering. After a couple of hours, it was time for breakfast. The now close to sixty people gathered around an assortment of bowls and ate vigorously. After breakfast, we continued to work. Little mints or koala nuts were given out to each person (courtesy of my sister’s family). The sun started to get hot, but we kept picking. Taking a moment to stop and gaze out at the amount of cotton still left to be picked, I couldn’t believe that there was any way it could all be done in one day. It was time for lunch. Buckets of water to drink were lugged from the well, not exactly a short distance away. Gigantic bowls were brought out, with couscous, sauce, cossant and rice scattered throughout. Everyone ate to a bursting point, and as soon as someone finished, they then made it their job to make sure everyone else was eating until full and had water to drink.
Once lunch was over, everyone headed back out to the field. My back started to hurt. Still, no one complained and no one left to go home. Despite the work everyone had at their own homes; their own fields to work on, meals to be cooked, clothes to be washed, everyone stayed to help finish what we started. Relatives, friends and even people who had just heard that the killay was happening worked and worked and worked. The sun slowly got lower in the sky and somehow, the field was almost done. Gigantic piles of picked cotton were scattered around the outside, with more cotton constantly being dumped on top. I looked around. Sweating yet smiling faces. People had made food, brought mints, tea, nuts, radios, batteries. Not only did people come to work, but they brought offerings, whatever they could contribute to make the work as enjoyable as possible. Just as the sun started to dip behind the mountains, we were done. The whole field cheered. Tea was distributed to each family, a “party favor” so to speak, and everyone dispersed to get home in time to do the work they need to do at their own home.
As I walked home, my back more than a little sore, I started to think about the give and take in the culture here focused on community living. A neighbor’s field is your field as well and if your neighbor doesn’t get their work done in time then you hurt as well. Here, everyone is considered family. If a stranger walks into the village, without hesitation he is offered water to drink, food to eat and a bed to sleep on. You offer because it is right, and because you know he would do the same thing if you stumbled upon his village. There are so many ways in our everyday lives we can embody this attitude, wherever we live, and my time here has only convinced me of how true it is. Tomorrow is another killay. It isn’t my sister’s or one of my friends. But tomorrow we will wake up, with the sun, to cook couscous and spend another day in the fields. One person’s work is everyone work, and once it is finished we all get to cheer at the end.