Jawara sat by the strange river on a hard, wooden bench watching a mother duck leading her brood of ducklings as they swam line astern towards the grassy bank. Despite the bright spring sunshine a chill wind shivered the surface of the river into flecks of silver. He pulled his loose robe closer around him, the hot colours of the Gambia burning amongst the greens and browns of England.

He thought of his dear children at home in the compound just outside Kemolo. They would be missing him he was sure. He was worried about little Penda. She was only a month old – a weak child struggling too soon to enter the world. She was not gaining weight as she should and Jawara had not wanted to leave her. But all the arrangements had been made for him to come on this exchange visit to England and he reassured himself in the knowledge that Abibatu, his second wife, was a good mother.

His reflections were interrupted by a commotion on the river. One of the ducklings was unable to follow its siblings out of the water. Whether the bank had become too slippery or the duckling was too feeble was unclear. But it was still in the water piping plaintively to its mother, who called back encouraging it to try again. But each time it scrabbled at the bank and failed it became visibly weaker.

Jawara watched as it lost the battle and began to drift like a leaf with the current. The mother duck called to it urgently but she was compelled to stay with the rest of her brood. Jawara could not bear to witness the impending tragedy. He rose from the bench and gathering his long robes to his knees slipped down the bank into the river. The water only came up to his calves, but the cold numbed his skin almost making him cry out. He waded across the river his toes searching for the smooth stones of the riverbed.

But the duckling had been taken under an overhang of branches that prevented Jawara from approaching it. He willed the scrap of life to fight for its future. Peering into the undergrowth he lost sight of it and for a second or two the river seemed to stop flowing. Then he could see it again, struggling up through a tangle of tree roots till it reached its frantic mother. Relieved, Jawara stood like an exotic wading bird in the clear stream and for the first time since arriving in England felt a sense of connection with this land.

In his imagination Jawara traced the journey of the water that washed his legs, over the stony bed of the Kennet chalk stream, past the park where children played as children everywhere play, past alien houses built of brick and stone, past sluices and the sites of ancient mills into the Thames, across the ocean and up the wide, warm, familiar River Gambia carrying his love and the strength of his spirit to keep his little one safe.


Michael Cope (copyright reserved)

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