Here's a quick questionnaire on how well you know me: What has Lala been doing the past week? A) Jumping on a giant, very suspicious looking trampoline along the coast, at sunset, where we may or may not have also found a pair of adorable puppies, which we may or may not have picked up and played with--gotta put those rabies vaccinations to good use somehow B) Laying out on lounge chairs (be still my heart) at a Toubab resort for one bliss-filled day C) Writing...this shouldn't be that difficult D) All of the Above
If you answered D, you're right! A and B, although improbable, are also true--but I can't prove them like I can prove C. The following is an excerpt from what I've been working on, it's our second week here. Feel free to read some of it, all of it, or none of it. I'll probably never know either way, and therefore can't take it personally. Not that I would anyway--I've been blessed with a thick skin and huge ego. You might recognize some of it, I talked about a few of these events before, but you know. The beauty is in the details.
After the first weekend, I feel like we’ve been there forever. It doesn’t take long for me to feel like I’m building a routine--I get up early and go to school, which changes every day but makes it fun and more like an elementary school than college. I mean that in the best way possible--our first week, for example, we had two afternoons of musical demonstrations, an afternoon free, and one whole day on an island off the coast. It’s a rough life. We had language classes in the morning, Wolof and then French, which could sometimes feel like a lot. And we had lectures on different aspects of Senegalese culture, but those were clearing up so much confusion that I didn’t count it as a class, it was more like a FAQ. And finally we had a Field Study Seminar with Bouna, which could be a headache, but more because our communication went in circles than anything else.
For the most part, I was on vacation from the grueling pace of academics at Tulane and loving it. Our first day, after having lunch--a full meal of fish and rice and some kind of sauce for the equivalent of $4.00, something we were still marveling at--we came back to SIT to find a full traditional Senegalese band set up in one of our biggest rooms. OK! Souleye yells. On y va! Burnin’ daylight! This is one of his favorite phrases.
They start playing their instruments, wild drum beats run, skip and jump at full speed over each other--the djembe speaking sharp and loud against everything else, the kora gently tinkling in the background. There was a dancer there, Tutti, who was something else. Exuberant in every sense of the word, she somehow made her body mimic the sounds of the instruments. Sometimes it struck me as very Indian, sometimes I knew--this is African. Either way she was a lot of fun. She pulled us all up with her at one point, and we tried to copy her movements while we all stood in a big circle. We were awkward but we tried and did a lot, and I mean a lot, of laughing at ourselves.
We would be with them later in the semester again too--we’d each choose a specialty and learn to play djembe, the talking drum or tamana, or dance. For now we’re content to watch. The next day, an ethnomusicologist comes in to teach us the history of each instrument. He’s dynamic as he plays each instrument and tells their stories--I don’t understand very much but I love the way his voice sounds, rising and falling with his excitement. He talks for a while, then pulls us up with him too, handing us two sticks and tapping out rhythms for us to copy. We’re broken into three groups, and we lose the beat a lot as we try and play together, but still--something musical comes out of place that silence used to occupy. He starts singing, haunting melodies that I don’t understand the words to, only the meaning and tells us that in the Casamance, the Southern part of Senegal currently torn by civil war, thousands of people come together and sing these songs. I wish fiercely I could see that. I’m already moved by one person, I’d have a downright spiritual experience if there were a thousand. I forgot the songs, but sometimes they float back through my mind and I hum them for days after, trying to remember. But they always end up escaping me. One of my greatest joys in living here is the walk to and from school--it’s maybe 30 minutes, and not only does it allow me time to decompress from the day but it also lets me see my new home in action. Everyday life is hard to observe sometimes, if I’m in it I’m usually changing the flow of it, so walking past affords glimpses into how other people function everyday.
We, there’s always a group of us going back to our houses in Mermoz, head down the four flights of stairs, and wish the guards good-bye. We take a left behind SIT and walk on the sandy, red road that leads out towards the VDN--it cuts through a weird piece of land that’s just now being developed. Houses are under construction on both sides of the road, some of them are huge and elaborate structures that will be obscene when they’re finished. Mostly there are fields of weedy green plants and piles of various construction materials, and every so often a little pieced-together shanty will pop up, a woman and a baby will be sitting outside and sometimes laundry will be strung out, or a chicken will get underfoot. Horses are tethered, or sometimes just left, to graze in the fields. Some of them are skinny with hip bones that stick out too far, and some look healthy, wild and proud. For some reason this always surprises me. We never go for too long without getting hissed at by the horse and cart men, they’re always on this road and we’re always in the way.
Every now and then a roving band of goats will trot by--once we were charged and I screamed in surprised, much to the entertainment of what felt like everyone in a three mile radius. They came out of nowhere, alright? We go around a huge round-about, which is fenced off in the middle but why we’re not sure, and then onto the first road if you’re coming from the left and the second road if you’re coming from the right, which always confuses me and I usually get wrong, realizing halfway down the wrong road. We pass by what feels like hugely tall buildings now, maybe twenty stories--the Department of Agriculture, but it looks a lot like apartments. I think some might actually be apartments though, there are definitely more than one of essentially the same building so it’s possible. It doesn’t seem like anyone lives there. You hit the VDN after a few minutes and take a short left, just passing a guy who sells upright fans and incense burners on the corner next to a woman selling roasted peanuts, and stand at the crosswalk until there’s enough break in traffic to go without getting hit. We have one friend, Kathleen, who we nickname the Walker because she strides out into traffic with no fear. What? she always says. That’s how they do it!
It’s true but it’s still scary.
Once you’re across the VDN you can go two ways--take a left and follow the VDN until you get to Rachel’s house, past the pedestrian bridge and burning garage pile that got really high and smelled terrible when the sanitation department went on strike, and by the corner where in the morning all the newspapers are clipped to a fence and people crowd around to read the headlines. When you get to Rachel’s house you take a right, past the boutique that sells conditioner, past the tailor we’ve never talked to, past the alley that Merrill takes a left at, past the basketball courts where her brother and Dogo sometimes play basketball, past the parking lot and trees. Take a right, duck underneath the clothesline that sometimes hangs outside, walk until you come to a T. Take the step just to the left up, it’s not tiled, just dirt, and go past the empty lot on the corner where you see the man getting water out of the pipe in the morning. Greet the men who sit on either side of the alley out in front of their boutique every day, take the first left you see--step down, this one’s tiled. Keep going, the alley narrows now because the ledges in front of the houses get wider, you’ll see the one on the right where the boy sleeps--you see him every morning and sometimes at night if you come back from Merrill’s late enough. It’s a quick left once you pass our real front door, I realized everyone at my house uses the gate as the main entrance but really it’s the back of the house--it was weeks before I figured that out. Once you hit sand you’re close, there’s a wide sandy yard out front, or back I guess. Push hard on the gate, it gets stuck.
The other way to go is straight through the intersection when you get to the VDN--it’s a straight shot from there. The road gradually rises, traffic is terrible in the morning, bumper to bumper and everyone uses their horns, and there isn’t a good sidewalk so sometimes you brush past the cars when you’re walking. It’s a long and sandy, it gets stuck in my sandals and sometimes I have to stop and shake them out--keep following the road, you can’t turn off it until you get to the Mermoz round-about. Take a right there and it will take you to the Elton gas station and the bookstore that I love, it’s air-conditioned and nice and even in another language the feel of the pages is comforting to me. Take a left and it will bring you to the Caesar’s parking lot, where you can get hit on by the owner with your coffee, crepes, and chicken wings. They have internet though so it’s worth it. If you’re just trying to get home, keep going--past the fruit and vegetable sand that is always glistening, past the little boys they call Talibe who run to you everyday and ask for a cadeau, past the grocery store where I buy water and fiber cookies, past the construction site that Dogo brought me past once, past the jewelry store, past the liquor store that always has crates and crates of drinks stacked outside. Squeeze past the telephone pole and the truck that’s always parked on the sidewalk, go past the madames selling fried dough, take a left at the blue grocery store, you’ll see another fruit stand across the street. Say hi to Pamela, the stray who recognizes you now. Duck under the trees, find the concrete pathway, go past the hair boutique that Fatou owns, say hi to them if they’re sitting out front. Ten more steps and you’re there. Push hard on the gate, it gets stuck.
One afternoon the first week I get home and found a little girl playing in our living room with my host mom. She says something about her but I miss it--who is this? I asked later. She looks at me, This is Maréme! I told you that! She laughs.
I was under the impression that Maréme was a boy--turns out fils and filles sound a lot alike. Once I got that kink worked out Maréme and I had fun together, at 5-years-old she was tall and strong and full of energy. We played a lot of games that only she knew the rules of, I ended up losing a lot, which was ok because shouting, “gagneuse, gagneuse!” at her was more fun than winning anyway--or understanding what was going on in the first place. My host mom played with us too, surprisingly spry at 60 years old, she had no trouble sitting criss-cross on the floor and tossing rocks and bouncy balls. I don’t know how she did it--she prayed without issue too, touching her forehead to the floor like arthritis didn‘t exist.
Maréme is Fatou’s daughter and I liked seeing them together, it made Fatou a little more human and a little less like a mercenary, which is what I think she might have been in her former life. She would warm up as the semester went on, but for the first week or so the only time I saw her soften was when she would tickle and play with Maréme or let her fall asleep on her chest. Still, even with that contact, their relationship came across as harsh--as did the mother daughter relationship between Fatou, Mamie, and Virginie.
What mostly gave me that impression was the fact that they were speaking to each other in Wolof more than anything else--I realized that it sounded like they were fighting when they were really just having a normal conversation. A couple of times I asked Dogo--what’s the problem? And he would look at me, confused, and say there’s nothing wrong, what do you mean?
The short, clipped way of speaking Wolof couldn’t have been more opposite from the soft sounds of French and the long, comparatively slow sounds of English. I felt like I was being yelled at every time I was told to do something or to come somewhere, or even the way they said my name--instead of Lah-lah, the way I pronounced it, they said it so fast that I can’t even reproduce it on paper.
I’m issued commands constantly--Lala! Lala! Come here! Sit here! Watch this! Now sit here! Tell me about your day! Say hello to this neighbor! Come over here! Now watch this! You’re not watching! Watch! Lala!
Really--everything sounded like an exclamation. I don’t mind being told what to do here because I really don’t have any idea what I would do anyway--maybe write in my journal? Read? I have few distractions and very little alone time, a part of Senegalese culture I was afraid I’d struggle with. SIT tried to prepare us for this a little bit during orientation week, explaining that here, the sole reason you’re really alone is when you’re sick. The only time I shut my bedroom door was when I was changing, and even then if I was in there more than 5 minutes, soon the chorus of Lala! Lala! would start from my host mom. I liked feeling needed by her though--I never felt like I had a personality in French, and so it kept me from feeling as if I was only existing there, just taking up space in the room. At least I could engage by following directions and by asking questions, even if they were really obvious.
We also continue our tradition from the first night, I have lists and lists of Wolof words and phrases in my notebook by the end of the first week. Words for everything, some of them I use everyday, some of them I forget instantly and never use again. Waaw is yes, pronounced the same way Wow is in English--for the first few days I walked around thinking everyone was constantly impressed. Deetdeet is no, and most always be accompanied by a finger wag. Alhoumdulilay is thanks be to God, and it’s sprinkled into conversation constantly. Use it and they will love you forever. The obvious Arabic influence continues with Inshallah, which means God Willing, and that’s said anytime you talk about doing something in the future. I say, tomorrow I’m going to school at 8:30, and my host mom responds, with Inshallah. I repeat, somewhat hesitantly, Inshallah. I find it borderline unnerving--what do you think is going to happen? I guess you can never really know, but cripes. It doesn’t take long for us to be using a mix of French and Wolof with our families and with each other, which is great, but I can already tell that separating the two is going to prove challenging in the future.
My host mom and I also bonded over a show called India A Love Story early that week--it was a bizarre melodrama set in India that I understood maybe 6 words an episode of. What made it doubly confusing was that the dubbings didn’t match up at all with the actors mouths and I was constantly distracted by the delay or sometimes blatant cover-ups. My host mom would sit on her prayer rug, knees folded underneath her and headscarf sometimes slipped down over her shoulders, and throw an sharp elbow in my calf--I sat on the couch, every time something good happened. I could sort of deduce the plotline by that and the comments she made--she’s a snake! Oh, his poor mother! And she could tsk like nobody’s business.
If nothing else, we would always have India A Love Story.
I founda quick friend in Dogo--one of my first weekday nights with them he called me out front and into Fatou’s boutique, a sort of pop-up shop that sold various hair products. It was sort of ironic because she didn’t have any hair. These kinds of shops were really common, they had them for everything--bread, fruit, fabric, soap, credit for your phone, tailors, barbershops. Get it at your local boutiqe. Fatou had a couch and TV in the back of hers, so I was sitting with the three of them, Dogo, Fatou and Mamie, when Dogo pulled out his cell phone. Hey Lala, he says. Do you know Marvin Gaye?
Yeah, I say. Do you?
And that’s when we all had a sing-a-long to Sexual Healing while they laughed hysterically at me and I laughed hysterically at them--they had no idea what they were saying and I wasn’t about to be the one who told them. I can only imagine the all kinds of inappropriate circumlocution that would have had to take place for me to get that message across--Lord knows I don’t have the vocabulary to say it directly. Not that I’d want to anyway.
Later that night, while we were watching TV, which we did a lot in the evenings and really any time, my old friend Marvin popped up again--this time as the name of a goat on one of the competitions on TV. What kind of competitions? you might ask. Well the kind of competition a country seriously obsessed with goats holds, I might say. They parade massive goats across the stage, bearing names like “Police”, “Obama”, and “Balla Gaye”. Then they hold up scorecards, 1-10, like at the Olympics. This is not a drill.
Sometimes Dogo takes me with him on his nightly walks around Mermoz--the first time he brings me to the statue commemorating the French pilot our neighborhood is named after, John Mermoz. As bad luck would have it, he crashed here--he lost his life and Mermoz got a name. We wind through the streets after dark and he points out landmarks that help me orient my location--here’s the huge Baobab, here’s a wrought iron fence you’ll always recognize, here’s a tiny statue of a plane, here’s a bilingual school. He tells me stories about growing up in the neighborhood, he’s lived here his whole life. Which makes sense, because everyone we see knows Dogo--anytime anyone around here asks me where I live, I tell them, Chez Dogo. At Dogo’s house.
They always react the same way, “Ohhhh, Dogo!” My host mom sat me down on one of my first afternoons and taught me our real address, which surprised me because I didn’t even realize we had one--#77170 2eme Porte, Mermoz, Dakar. I’ll remember it forever, but the next day when she asked me, where do you live? I responded without thinking, Chez Dogo.
She cracked up.
I like walking at night especially--it finally cools off and I feel like I can take deep breaths again. The air feels cleaner too, which probably isn’t true, but it stops feeling quite as thick with heat and pollution. One night we cross the VDN into Dogo’s best friend’s neighborhood, Bachir lives in Amitie Trois. Everyone is sitting out on the streets, it’s been a particularly hot day and the houses get stuffy. While we walk the electricity goes out with a noise like a zipper being pulled--and then a collective sigh rises up from the people. I ask Bachir and Dogo why it goes out so often, I assume it’s because of a lack of resources and solid infrastructure but that’s not it, they say. The Minister of Energy is eating the money. He’s eating the money, this keeps being repeated. Why? Because he’s corrupt, they say. Last week, before you got here, there were riots all over the city. Fires everywhere--some neighborhoods didn’t have electricity for over 40 hours. The rage over the lack of electricity is compounded by the fact that water and energy is really expensive--so you pay a lot for nothing. It’s hard, they say.
Dogo tells us how lucky we are, our quadrant of Mermoz is on the same one that the hospital is on so we don’t lose power as much as Bachir. You come live in Amitie Trois! he says. I’ll take your room in Mermoz--I can’t sleep here when it’s hot and we don‘t have power.
No way, Bachir. I say. I love my fan too much. We all laugh--for once I’m in on the joke.
For as much as I’m learning to love my new home and my new family, I’m loving school just as much--even when it’s frustrating. We have an assignment for Bouna’s class, FSS--write an essay on a moment of cultural confusion that you’ve experienced while here. Ok, I think, trying to brainstorm some ideas during class. I don’t get far though--cultural confusion is unfolding in front of me. We’re trying to figure out when the essay is due, the assignment sheet gives a date that we’ll be gone, we’ll be in the village. Questions arose as to whether or not our papers should be done before we left, effectively moving the due date up three days. Bouna told us--no, the due date is the 27th, but yes you’ll have to get it in early, technically. But, he said, if you have an experience in the village you want to write about, you could do that, too. Then there was confusion over whether we could turn our papers in late, after the initial due date, because we would have to wait until we left the village to write it. No, Bouna says, you can’t turn papers in late. But the due date, he explained, is more of a guideline and as long as it was in within about ten days, it would probably be fine.
Well that‘s helpful.
At first I was incredulous that the deadline hadn’t been set within the schedule so as to be more conducive to our travels--they make the schedule and set the due dates, wouldn’t it just make more sense to make it due before or after we left? What’s not adding up here? Then I just became increasingly frustrated as questions kept arising and no clear consensus was being reached.
I think at that point it came down to a different mindset between the Senegalese and Americans--we’ve been raised on a system of strict deadlines, rigid grading procedures, and a clear outline of expectations. We expected to be told exactly what was due and when. We’re coming from a society that operates extremely efficiently. Life here is very different--not worse, not better, just different in that things like time, schedules and due dates are all a little more flexible. Less emphasis is placed on life operating like clockwork--and in some ways, I don’t think it can here, or much less so than it can in the United States. The electricity might go out, a taxi might get lost; this is a society that has to operate on the assumption that you must always expect the unexpected, and so concrete plans become very hard to finalize.
We finally get it figured out--technically, Bouna says, everything with Bouna is always technically. Technically it’s due the Friday before we leave.
Ok, we breathe a sigh of relief. I write my essay on what just transpired and get an A. At least they have a sense of humor too.
They also have a sense of just how hard to push us--which is rarely hard at all. Wednesday afternoons we’re given free, so naturally we hit the beach. Hey Souleye! We say. Where’s a good place to go? He gives us the name of a spot to tell the taxi driver and we go on our way. Unfortunately, the taxi driver knows where this beach is about as well we do, which is not at all. So we drive along the coastline for awhile until he, apparently at random, picks a spot to drop us off. We get out--there is a beach, it’s just through a weedy field where a few men are standing, very sketchily, and a rocky stretch of shore. This doesn’t look right, we think. So we start walking back along the now deserted road--we’ll hit a better beach at some point. Some point turns out to be ¾ of a mile up the road, we pass a stretch of gorgeous houses, a tree with shoes dangling in it, and take a turn down a street that looks promising. Finally we get to a stretch of sandy beach--we clamber down some rocks and run headlong into the ocean. It’s warm and so salty my lips hurt, and once you swim past the wave breaking point it’s easy to float on your back and look up at the sky and where the cliffs on either end of the cove meet. Well, it’s easy for some people to float on their backs and admire the scenery--I would sink like a rock even in the Salt Lake in Utah. Trust me. I’m nothing if not dense, and I come by it honestly.
We stay for a long time, saying sometimes--I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m swimming off the coast of Africa! It does feel both surreal and very real, I waver in between disbelief and knowing that this is very much happening to me. But in the end I decide to forget the existential and live only in this moment, here at the beach. And this moment is calling for me to work on the skirt tan that’s slowly appearing about six inches up from my ankles.
Friday morning we take the ferry out to Ile de Gorée, an island off the coast of Dakar. While we go out, chugging heavily through the chop, we pass hundreds of pirogues, the long, white and sometimes painted boats--we would see more anchored in the harbor on the island and I loved them. It was, for many slaves, their last stop in Africa--but for all its tragic history, Goree is beautiful. I stared hungrily at the scenery, it’s a sublime mix of sun, sand, colorful houses and above all, leafy green trees, something that Dakar is sorely lacking. A Baobab every now and then does not a pretty landscape make. We visit first the Maison des Esclavages, or house of slaves, which was eerie but not as ominous or moving as I expected it to be. This could be also because I really only understood about a third of what the Curator was saying, so that definitely lessened the impact--and I also politely declined an invitation into the cell under stairs where the rebellious slaves were kept, so I missed that particular trauma too. We went to the women's museum, where there was a courtyard that I entertained a brief fantasy of having coffee under the trees in, and tuned back into this curator’s lecture as she was explaining that Senegal has never had a black, or Senegalese, first lady. Interesting and extremely depressing.
We go to lunch at a restaurant on the water, and then to a museum in the colonial Fort on the island--it’s hot but we stand for a long time and look at the shoreline of Dakar. It’s hazy in the distance, but mostly it just looks brown.
We eventually go back to the beach, I sit in the sand and watch a stray dog dig a hole and flop into it right by the water’s edge, the same way my old dog Jessie used to do. Except she wasn’t in the sand on a beach in Africa, she was in the dirt underneath the back deck. Tomato, tomatoe.
The harbor is beautiful--it’s like looking at a postcard. There are plenty of pirogues out, the brightly colored, long traditional fishing boats and the water is the most gorgeous shade of aqua. Later we wander up through the neighborhood on the island and to the highest point, where we stop at a restaurant and drink bouye, a juice made from the fruit of a Baobab tree. That's when I start thinking maybe Africa might be all it‘s cracked up to be after all. But then I remember that there were thirty thousand flies surrounding us and I had come to the conclusion not twenty minutes earlier that my body was without a doubt creating a scent that I had never smelled on myself before coming here, and so maybe this wasn't such a walk in the park after all. But you know. A really great view can change your outlook on life.
So can exercise--there’s nothing like a hit of endorphins to make you feel good about your life. I’m a sucker for gym culture but unfortunately that isn’t an option here, so my friend Merrill and I make do with a run along the Corniche at around 6, before it gets dark but after it starts cooling off. We set out of Mermoz, taking a left at the fruit stand man and following the road until we hit the intersection at the corner. We jog across the street, easily hopping the divider, and then follow the road through one of the nicest parts of town--it gets quiet and shady, and there are massive gates protecting massive houses, and every now and then an embassy. We keep going, taking a left when the road makes a T. We run past the Radisson Blu, the nicest hotel in Dakar, and where a steady stream of BMWs and white people flow in and out, and follow the sidewalk, ducking occasionally under the fronds of a plant that grows every few feet. Once a man shouted at us when I brushed too close, hey! Watch out for those, they’ll cut you!
Thanks for looking out, sir. We keep going until we get to an incredible outcropping of land, and we stare out at the setting sun. The peachy and pastel oranges of the sky, and the light blue of the ocean are so delicate and beautiful that they make the land and Dakar seem garish--maybe that’s why I haven’t thought the city is beautiful yet. The buildings and streets and people pale in comparison to the ocean. Further still is a beach famous for the thousands of people gather and do exercise moves in unison, straight of an 80s Jane Fonda video. It’s called Muscle Beach, which makes me laugh. There’s one of those in California too but I’m pretty sure it’s different. We watch for awhile, marveling at how many people are out, and then run back. We’re in good company--plenty of people are running at the same time we are, and every so often a really fast guy will come sprinting past and I get excited thinking, maybe he’s a future Olympian! I’m running with African Olympians! It’s almost enough to make me forget I’m running at all.
There are women out too, but definitely fewer. They still stay covered, long stretchy pants are the norm. Sometimes we see them with full headscarves on too, which always impresses me. When I get home, Dogo tells me, we’ll run together sometime soon! I take Achill with me all the time!
Maybe, I say. I might need some time to work up to that.
Later that night we go out to one of Dogo’s favorite clubs--Calypso. We stop first at the local bar, although none of the Senegalese men with us will drink. It surprises me that they have a full service bar for that reason alone--as a 95% Muslim country, it would follow that there wouldn’t be many places to obtain something that most abstain from. Regardless, La Mermoz is noisy and fun, and I realize that it backs up against my bedroom wall, it’s that local. Suddenly the singing I’ve been hearing at night makes sense.
We meet the rest of our group there and then head downtown--it’s already nearly one in the morning by the time we get there. They tend to go out much later than we do, obviously--but we don’t have any stamina built up yet so a pretty good portion of the group leaves early, at maybe two. Myself and a few others stay, dancing, and it only reaffirms my belief that black people have intrinsically better rhythm than white people--call me racist, but I'm not making this up. And more than rhythm, they just know how to move in ways that I can't even begin to compare to. But as an added bonus, going out with Dogo and his friends subdue to an incredible extent the amount of unwanted male attention and (at least most) of the marriage offers. This is probably because most men there thought that myself and the other ladies were already the wives of Dogo & Co., but hey, whatever works. At one point we step outside for some air, my hair is wet from sweat--again. A man approaches us. Are you married? Yep, we say, instantaneously. Two husbands each.
We go home at four in the morning, walking out into a deserted street to catch a taxi. The night is quiet and cool, like I’ve come to know it, and I look up and see stars peeking out between the buildings. I love this. Across the street is a club named Texas--Dogo, can we go back there? We can go now, he says, but then takes a closer look at my tired eyes. Well, maybe another night.
Sounds like a deal to me.
On Sunday we continue our tour of the fabulous beaches of Senegal and visit as a group, Mbour, a beach town just South of Dakar--because, as they put it, we needed a break from the hustle and bustle of the city. I'm not disagreeing, but I do know that if this were Tulane I would not be laying out at a seaside resort for the day because New Orleans was "overwhelming". Either way, Resort Ndaali was gorgeous--more leafy green, flowers everywhere, secret tiled pathways that lead to the garden, yassa poulet for lunch at a big long table, and of course, that salty, salty sea--the Atlantic. One downside of the beach here is how much attention we garner, especially the girls. Senegal is pretty progressive, so bikinis are commonplace, but young, white female skin is not. So while we laid out and faced the ocean, a crowd of at least 20 boys, from 7 to 19, laid out and faced us. They chatter loudly in Wolof, which none of us speak very well, but it's easy to tell by tone what they're saying--and of course, rafete, or pretty, is said constantly. Talk about developing an ego. They also clap every time anyone stands up and walks to the ocean, and then the crowd shifts to hovering at a close distance in the water. I think this must be what it's like to be a celebrity--I however, am not ready to shave my head just yet, although my host family keeps telling me I need braids or to cut it. The night before Fatou had Dogo shave her head as his day job is being a barber. He brought his kit home and had her sit in a chair in the courtyard, and she tells me a couple times, It’s too hot, Lala! Amen sister. While he’s doing it, Yaka the goat keeps trying to nibble the light dusting of hair falling on her shoulders--she punches him in the nose. Just another night in the Thiam household.
Later in the afternoon, we’re still laying out but our crowd of admirers grows restless and increasingly inappropriate. Throughout the day they’ve been ahem, very obviously excited. But at one point, as I prop myself up on my elbows to roll over I catch a glimpse of one boy who has completely whipped his wang out!
I half laugh, half cry in astonishment and tell the others--don’t react, don’t react, Alexa says quickly. It’ll only encourage them! She’s right but as we’re laying on our backs, staring pointedly at the sky, we can’t help but laugh hysterically. What the fuck? Merrill says, and we only laugh harder. It’s difficult to interpret their actions as anything other than lewd and as sexual harassment, but you have to understand that in some ways, we’re so out of the ordinary that they don’t know how to behave with us. And more than that, mostly what they know of white women is what they see in movies, and Lord knows that’s not pretty. We’re also displaying much more skin than they’ve probably seen of a woman there whole lives, and so for whatever reason, normal rules don’t apply. I hate this part of being here, I hate being objectified because of the color of my skin and my gender--I didn’t ask for that. But I can’t blame them. We tell Fatou, our language teacher, when we get back what happened. She’s shocked, but tells us that a lot of times in the resort towns like that European women will come and hire Senegalese men for certain indoor activities. Prostitution is legal here, after all. I think back to an older women I saw dancing with a much younger guy at the club, and it all starts to come together for me. After we hit the beach, our bus takes us into the town of Mbour because we had gotten word that they were having a masking ceremony. We were all really excited for the ceremony, but then it became total chaos in a matter of seconds. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt threatened here. We don't understand what is happening--I don't think anyone does, not even our directors, because when the bus gets into town and closer to the ceremony, probably 50 or so kids start swarming the bus, screaming in Wolof and waving sticks and these short little whip things. They were banging the sides, climbing up the ladder on the back, gesturing wildly in the windows, flipping us off and miming cutting our throats--it was insane. There were a few people in our group who argued that we shouldn't be there, that we shouldn't get off the bus. But I wasn't afraid of them, necessarily--I have enough faith in humanity to believe that if confronted with a person, and not a big, obvious, intrusive vehicle, there wouldn't be any violence.
Luckily I was right, because we did end up getting off. It turned out that the children were protecting the Kankouran, the spirit at the heart of the masking ceremony. Basically, there are four or five people in the village chosen to put on the mask and embody the spirit of the Kankouran, a protective force for the animiste people of Mbour. Every Sunday in September, when Islamic boys are traditionally circumcised, they don the masks and become an otherworldly spirit who chases away the evil spirits in the village so they don't possess or harm the boys while they are weakened by their transition into manhood. The Kankouran is covered in golden bark and a fierce, scary mask, and while he dances wildly with two long machetes, he is ringed by the elders of the village. They are then surrounded by boys who have already been circumcised, they're the ones with sticks and whips, and they keep the villagers from getting too close to the Kankouran. It's a sacred ceremony and no one is supposed to know who the Kankouran is--the boys were worried, mostly, that we would be taking photos of Kankouran, as Toubab tourists are apt to do. We got the message loud and clear. No pictures, please.
Once we get off the bus, we’re broken up into smaller groups--stay close to one of us, say the SIT staff, and then we head into different directions. It takes no time for us to be caught up in the tide of thousands of people following the Kankouran, trying to get closer. Mostly it's a day for children, because it's like a game--they see how close they can get before they're chased off viciously by the protecting boys. Then they run, as hard and as fast as they can, because they will hit you. I will never forget how this felt--I’m walking next to Alexa in one moment, and the next moment I hear I collective scream and feel the air change, it becomes charged with an energy that my mind doesn’t recognize but my body does, my heart is set in motion and my senses are on high. I start to turn, confused, and a little girl grabs my hand and pulls me hard down the street. Her hand is swallowed by mine but it’s only that and my instinct that keep my legs in motion. I don’t know where she’s taking me and I try to keep an eye on Alexa, and I’m worried that the bottom of my shoe is going to get caught on something--what is that you’re supposed to do if you trip in a stampede? Curl into a ball and cover your head, that’s what it is.
We stop, somehow back near the bus and cautiously creep forward again, towards whatever it is we were running from a minute earlier. I hear the Kankouran before I see him---the talking drum is beating out wild rhythms, announcing his arrival and continued movement. I just barely glimpse the bark on his arm, flashing like some strange golden fire in the sun. I can see the circumcised boys dressed all in white around him, and the elders of Mbour around them. I’ve run from the Kankouran, I think. That’s pretty cool.
Before we leave we attract our own little crowd of followers--Alexa coaxes names out of them from behind giggles and hidden smiles. We wave good-bye to them as the bus pulls away and breath sighs of nervous relief. It may have been touch and go there for awhile.
That night when I get home, I tell my host mom about the Kankouran. She shakes her head and finger at me--that’s not good, Lala. That’s scary. It’s ok, I say, Bouna was there. Her face splits into a smile. Ah, Bouna Fall! How’s Bouna Fall? He’s good, I say. C’est bon! she shouts. That’s good! Everyone loves Bouna.
The next afternoon at school we get our first introduction to drumming and dancing--we’re playing the djembe and hanging out with Tutti again. I’m in the first group for drums, so we grab the djembes out from the storage room at SIT and bring them over to a bilingual school down the road. They’re big, sturdy instruments, with a wide head and narrow, cinched in base--the skin stretched across the top still has the faint marks of some kind of animal on it. Wrapped around the skin where it connects to the base are brightly woven strips of cloth. We get set up in a circle, drums pressed tightly between our knees while we wait for Edouard, our instructor. His teaching style isn’t so much a teaching style as it is him playing and us trying to mimic him. He plays the pattern once and then we play it, sort of, and then we just keep repeating it until we all fall into the beat. Sometimes it takes a really long time for everyone to get there, I able to catch on pretty quick, but by the third day we’re all pretty much able to identify five different rhythms and play along. Edouard is gifted--while my drum makes a consistent thudding sound each time I hit it, regardless of how hard, fast or often, his speaks in an infinite number of tones. Sometimes they’re high and sharp, sometimes low and quiet, sometimes solid and reassuring and sometimes flighty and unsettling. He has a language of noise at his fingertips. I love to watch him. As much a performer as he is a musician, he throws his head back and closes his eyes when he really gets going, making his throat long and stretched out tight over his Adam‘s apple--he plays over and through our steady and repeated rhythms when we hold the beat. When one of us really can’t get the rhythm, he stares in their direction with a half-smile on his face. It does nothing but make them feel more on the spot, but he seems to enjoy it. His head is always bobbing, and when we take off through a more complicated pattern, he yells “Lessss gooo!” You better believe that became a catchphrase for the next three months in our group.
I love drumming, it’s a wild, raucous collective energy that I’m easily caught up in. Merrill turns out to be really good, we tell her to drop out of DU and become a djembe drummer, and I’m pretty sure she considers it--for awhile, at least. The one downside of so much drumming is that after awhile my hands hurt, they’re red and the skin feels too tight. If this were twitter I’d hash tag Africa problems.
We go to Tutti next, and she’s just as crazy as she was on the first day that we met her. She has an assistant with her this time--a younger girl, maybe a little younger than we are, and she has a rear end like none other. It doesn’t matter how good of a dancer I am, I will never look like her because my body will never look like that. Senegalese women are notorious for their bodacious curves. Once my host mom and I were talking--well she was talking and I was nodding, and she brought up the subject of the African booty. Mamie! she says. She’s like this! She gestures her hands over her own hips, wide. Fatou! She’s like this too! Big! That’s Senegal! She makes the gesture again.
I laugh. Not me, I say, moving my hands up and down in a straight line. Now she cracks up--not you, she says, making the c’est la vie face. You’re American! Then she turns to me, deadly serious. When you gain three kilos, you’ll be Senegalese. Yep, then I’ll fit right in.
Forget Senegalese--sometimes I barely fit in with my America peers; dance class separated the women from the girls. I hovered somewhere in between, managing to hide from Tutti’s critical glare at least partially behind those who were much better than I at the big, loose movements she was teaching us. Her teaching style was a lot like Edouard’s, but with less patience and more exasperation. I really couldn’t blame her, we were pretty awkward, but every day got a little bit easier and consequently a little bit better, and by the end she was smiling at us like maybe we weren’t total failures. Her brother, one of the drummers who was there accompanying us, had a lisp and a smile that just wouldn’t quit and who would jump in and help try to explain things sometimes--this usually hindered rather than helped, but he was nice. We finally learned the Yusa, the dance that Dogo and his friends were trying to explain to me. It’s a dance that’s wildly popular here, say Yusa to anyone and they’ll shout, “Yusa, yusa!” and throw their hands in the air. I figured out that that’s what Maréme does sometimes when my host mom says, gigenchi, gigencheggi--it’s the spoken words of the way the drum sounds. I almost stopped dead when we got to that part in dance class because it surprised me so much. I almost, but didn’t. Tutti was watching.
I left in a hurry with Erica and Merrill after class on the first day because Dogo had promised to take us to a soccer game that night with him and Bachir. Every neighborhood has a team, we were going to miss the Mermoz game because we were done with class too late, but we could make it in time for Bachir’s neighborhood’s game--Amitie Trois was playing Grand-Yoff. We ran home and changed while Dogo hustled us out the door and into taxis. I’m excited! I tell Bachir when we get in the car. He laughs. You mean you’re excited for the game, he says. Yeah--I’m excited.
He explains to me, No, Lala. When you say excited you always have to say for what, otherwise it just means you’re excited, like--how can you understand? Like in the bedroom. Merrill, Erica and I die laughing. Ok, I say. I’m excited for the game.
We get there and Dogo goes and talks to someone, then suddenly we have tickets. The stadium is huge and concrete--we walk through the entrance archway and hand our tickets, pink slips of paper, to another guy. He tosses it just inside the entryway, on a huge pile of other pink slips. It looks like confetti to me. There’s a big wide pavilion sort of area where maybe twenty food vendors are set up--women making bread and sandwiches, peanuts, beignets, roasting corn and different meats. I’ve just seen Senegalese concession stands. We pass by them though and start walking along a wide, cement path that rings the stadium seats, stopping and cutting down to seats that are just a few rows back from the field. This spot is pretty empty compared to the other sections--across the stadium is packed. I ask Dogo why we’re not sitting over there, and he shakes his head, saying, it’s not good. The game is intense, like a sporting even should be, and we jump out of our seats more than once. So does everyone else--there are more than a few boys who run along the barbed wire fence that surrounds the field shouting. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but Dogo looks sort of grave, so I imagine it’s not good.
Bachir tells us who each player is on Amitie Trois’ team--that’s my neighbor, he’s my friend, he’s really good, there, him, he’s the fastest. I like the commentary, but I like the music better--the game is backed by a traditional African rhythm section that’s even cooler now that I can name a few of the different drums we’re hearing and recognize one of the songs that everyone is singing. Gaby Ba taught it to us--it’s haunting and low but beautiful, and it drifts over the stadium as the masses hum along, punctuated with an Aaaahhhh! every time something happens in the game. Dogo and Bachir easily follow the game without a scoreboard or announcer, but we get a little lost. Merrill starts telling Erica a story about how she took a picture of herself and her host sisters sitting on a couch, and for whatever the reason she looks huge, way bigger than them--she exclaims, I look like some great white monster! I’m doubled over laughing, I saw the picture earlier this week and it is hilarious--and Dogo turns to me immediately concerned and starting to ask, Lala, what’s wrong? He can’t see that I’m laughing so hard I’m crying, he just sees the crying. I wave him off, I’m fine, but I make a mental note. If I wasn’t sure I couldn’t cry before, I definitely am now. We leave before it’s officially over, but they know Amitie Trois has lost by one. I’m sorry Bachir! we say. He shrugs and laughs--it’s ok, it’s like that! A good sport. Dogo buys us all roasted corn, and it’s hot and so good. We try and teach them how to say popcorn, but it’s a struggle, but it’s in this way that we walk through the dark and talk--another friend of Dogo’s shows up, it’s Sheikh and his new puppy! She’s tiny and wriggly and cute and trips along side us without a leash. My heart is stolen. It’s a long way back to Mermoz, but it’s cooled off and I don’t mind the walk--night is now my favorite time to be out. There’s so little electricity that there are always a billion stars, I tell Dogo that the night sky looks different here and he laughs. It’s the same sky that’s in America, Lala!
I think of my Mom, who told me the week before I left that I could look at the moon in Senegal and know that it was the same moon she was looking at in Oregon. I think of how funny it is that two wildly different people, from two wildly different places, can be telling me the same thing, and it makes me feel both very far away and close at the same time.
But I look at the moon anyway, watching him so much that I trip into potholes so often that it stresses Dogo out, and I only say good night to my night sky friend when we get home and I do the Yusa for my host Mom and sisters, who are delighted with my new party trick. Over dinner, Dogo tells me that Sheikh named his new puppy after Erica. For the next few weeks, every time I tell him a story about Erica, he asks which one--it never gets old.
The next night I continue being the evening’s entertainment--I have to do laundry. Fafey, Fatou the maid’s nickname, does my clothes but I’m responsible for my underwear. This was another thing covered in orientation week--doing our own undergarments eliminates all kinds of modesty and privacy issues. I tell my host mom, damay foot, like she taught me the first day, and she says, Kai--come. She pulls out a huge black bucket and points. Put them in there. I give Fafey money and she goes to the boutique and then comes back with detergent. I sprinkle a little on, but then Fafey takes it out of my hands and dumps half the bag in. Everyone in the house at some point comes by where I’m sitting in the courtyard and demonstrates the proper way to scrub--like this! miming moving their hands back and forth against each other. This is hard, I tell Fafey, and she smiles. Her cheekbones are out of control.
It’s true--my hands are quickly chapped, wrinkly and sticky from the soap and water and my knuckles are raw and bruised where I accidentally rub them together. Fafey comes back and finishes for me, viciously scrubbing them together. Apparently I’m being too gentle. We wring them out together--she does twice as much as I do, I’m taking much longer but somehow still not doing it as well. We put the clothes in a second bucket and rinse them, then wring them again, then rinse them again, then wring. Now they’re done. I have to wait until morning to put them out on the line, which I do, and my underwear hangs brightly against the gray cement wall, dancing merrily in the breeze. Erica comes to my house so we can start the walking chain to school, and says, nice underwear.
I laugh. Can you tell it’s mine? When we leave she points out a teenage guy, standing a few feet away and taking a photo on his cell phone. We laugh, but my host mom comes out and rips him a new one--you can tell a mother’s love by how vehemently she defends your undergarments from the neighborhood boys.
That night we walk home in the dark from SIT because we linger on the roof, watching the sun go down. Fatou, my French and Wolof professor, tells us that the Senegalese don’t like sunset and twilight--crepèscule is when soul-stealing spirits come out. She laughs, Americans love the sunset! But how could we not when it goes down in a blaze of magenta and fiery orange gold, streaking the sky with strips of light and dark blue? The monument stands triumphant and chilly over the rest of the skyline, the clouds arranged dramatically behind. We try and leave a few times but always end up standing mesmerized, until the sky is almost entirely engulfed by the purple blue of night. Then it’s me that gets ripped a new one--my host mom waits out on the road for me to get back then grabs me by the wrist while we finish the walk home. Lala! I was scared! she admonishes. Where were you? You have to tell me when you’re going to be late!
I’m sorry, I say, trying to stop the wave of scolding. I was watching the sunset.
I should’ve expected the look I got--not incomprehension this time, but incredulity. She says something in Arabic--maybe a prayer? Whatever language it was, I’m pretty sure it went a long the lines of, Lord, grant me the patience to deal with the crazy white girl I have on my hands.
I guess we all have our crosses to bear.
p.s. Sorry this was so long and verbose. Nice work on making it to the end, it's a long haul, I know.