One of my primary reasons for coming here is my deep and abiding love for the Lion King and my long held desire to somehow, someway become Simba. I'm well on the road there. I wasn't even that torn up about missing the 3D in theaters re-release a few weeks ago because, hey, I'm experiencing it in 4D! Or whatever D real life is, if you can call living here real life at all--which, after some very surreal moments in the last week and a half, I'm sort of inclined to think that it might not be. My disbelief started two Thursday nights ago when we went without electricity for 24 hours--it was a very hot night. As I'm typing this actually the power just went out again, so I guess I'll just put off posting for another day or two or however long it takes.* It doesn't go out for lack of resources, like I initially thought. I figured there maybe wasn't enough hydropower to go around in a city as big as Dakar. But as it turns out, the Minister of Energy here is as corrupt as they come--the phrase I keep hearing is, "He's eating the money." I'm starting to understand why someone would be driven to riot, come 4:30 a.m. when you've been laying drenched in your own sweat for six hours, exhausted and trying to sleep, you'd take it to the streets too. Needless to say, I didn't board our large and fantastically obnoxious bus Friday morning well-rested and ready for a road trip.
Our first stop was at a monastery, which didn't strike me as that exceptional until I saw the cross itself and it struck me as odd--you know you're in a Muslim country when a cross looks out of place. The monastery was exceptional though, it was wonderfully exceptional and whatever I describe here won't be able to do it justice. We made it in time for Mass, which normally I dread--and I'm not even Catholic. But that day it was a welcome respite from the calls to prayer that we've been inundated with since being here--I still didn't understand hardly at all what they were saying, the sermon went right over my head, but the comfort of being in a church made the experience worth it alone. The music during the service was by far the highlight. The monks incorporated traditional African instruments into traditional French Catholic hymns, and the end result of the monk's voices weaving in and around the sound of the kora and over the gentle rhythms of the djembe and overturned calabash was enough to make you want to convert. During the mass, a storm picked up outside and it started to rain, turning the air into something familiar to me--so familiar it was almost tangible, it was like feeling my mom put her hand on my back, not quite a hug but enough to constitute a touch from home. They didn't shut the main doors into the church and so the wind blew in and whipped my skirt around my legs, and blew the hair off my neck, and I was finally, finally authentically cool.
We flew threw the countryside into Thies, Senegal's third largest city but small enough that it has none of Dakar's chaotic energy. Life tends to be much slower, calmer, but also more spontaneous. Case in point: while on the bus heading to an artisan's market, one of our administrators, Linda, spotted an old friend of hers (she lived in Thies during her stint in the Peace Corps) and invited him onto the bus with us. So he did, and he turns out to be the famous artist, Dioussi--reknowned in West Africa and celebrated in the States for his graphic and bold paintings that generally depict scenes from daily life in Senegal. So he hops on the bus with us, has a few paintings in his hands, we ooh and aah over them, and then we go on our merry way. He comes with us to the market and then to a glass painting workshop, and then he says, if we want, he'll show us his studio. Of course we want to see his studio, are you kidding me? So we load back onto the bus and take a maze of dirt roads into a neighborhood somewhere deep in Thies, and every kid in a three mile radius comes out to see the great white beast (the bus, but also kind of us--ok definitely us), so by the time we make it to the studio we have a following of at least four thousand. We get out at Dioussi's studio, which is actually just a small building in his family's compound, so we're greeted by his extended family and his grandchildren, of which there were many. The studio was in a corner of the courtyard--every inch of wallspace was covered in either artwork, photos, or books. He walks us through his process, "These are my paints, these are my pens, this is where I sit in the morning for the light and this is where I sit in the afternoon." He shows us painting after painting, describing each one for a minute--one of his mother and sister in his village, a few of fisherman, different festival days. He shows us three framed paintings on the wall; they're huge and colorful, with metallic silver and gold accents, and tells us, "These are for the first lady of Senegal. They go out next week." Oh no big deal Dioussi, you're just catering to the finickiest Frenchwoman in the country. So we thank him for his time and let him know we'll be at his show in Dakar next week with wallets ready, and we turn to go, and he says to Linda, "I like them, I like their group." And all of a sudden we have a student discount--that was a buying frenzy like you wouldn't believe. Nordstrom Anniversary Sale has nothing on Dioussi's workshop. And for roughly $20 I took away a much more expensive painting, a history of the painting and what it meant to the painter, a photo with Dioussi and a priceless little piece of serendipity.
We spent one, blissfully air-conditioned night in a hotel in Thies and headed the next morning for the Grand-Mosque in Touba and then onto the villages. The Mosque was impressive, to say the least. It was huge and I had to crane my neck to see to the top of the minarets, and the tiles were so bright and shiny in the sun that I was squinting through my sunglasses. Mostly what I think I'll remember is how I could feel my hair slowly being plastered to the back of my neck with sweat underneath my headscarf and how my feet were burning on the tiles--headscarves are mandatory for all women to enter, as well as long skirts, and no shoes for everyone. We were racing, as respectfully as possible, from shady spot to shady spot on our tour. I had a moment of disbelief though--while we were listening to our guide, a Muslim woman pulled out her phone and started taking photos of us, the toubabs in headscarves. It wasn't the first time that's happened--we're always obvious, but I couldn't believe she would have the audacity to take photos of us in Senegal's holiest city, especially when we aren't ever allowed to take photos of them.
After Touba it was a straight shot to our villages--with one stop at an enormous Baobab that, rumor has it, is where they bury the Griot (families charged with protecting the music and dance of Senegal since the beginning of time, they still have them now). I think they stopped doing that actually awhile ago but it was still eery to stream across this wide open field towards this hollow tree--there was a rain shadow and lightening storm in the distance, far enough away that we couldn't feel it but close enough to see. And we stood underneath this massive tree and put our hands on the bark, and climbed the massive trunk, and it was like touching time itself.
When we got back on the bus it started raining in earnest--raining so hard that there were only sheets of white out the window and so the road into the village was muddy and rutted, and it was red like the adobe road at the ranch turns red when it rains, and that was oddly comforting as we headed into the great unknown of our villages. When we got there, my host father, Ndekkey, brought me to our house, and my first impression of Moumbaye (my village) was that it was gray and sort of squat. The house was really just two cement rooms with a tin roof facing a huge open sand yard, kind of, with other little huts and shelters, and a few other cement rooms at various points around the enclosure. I eventually pieced together that the family was about 15 people deep, but "family" is a loose term here, and especially so in the village. There are two different words for family in Wolof: mbokk literally means someone with whom you share, so that could be everyone from blood relatives to classmates, but it's used like family. And njaboot is also family, but it implies responsibility and support, so the head of the household is directly responsible for those in his or her njaboot. While we're on the subject of Wolof words, I'd like to point out that I know about 15. And maybe 6 phrases. I speak enough French to make myself understood, although it's still not great. But it became apparent in my first twenty minutes in Moumbaye that compared to my Wolof knowledge French could be my mother tongue--no one spoke any French or any English. It makes sense, because those are both the languages of education in Senegal, and most people in the villages haven't attended very much school, but it meant that I played charades for four days. Except I wasn't acting out three word movie titles, I was acting out, "is it ok to put toilet paper in the squat toilet?" And "how can I hang my mosquito net?" And "why are there pigeons everywhere?" The answers are no, with rope, and yet to be determined.
It rained for the rest of the day and for most of the first night, a relief because it meant it stayed cool. It also meant that the bugs were forced in from outside, so I sat on one side of a lantern and picked and flicked beetles falling from the ceiling, while approximately 30 other people sat on the other side, picking, flicking and watching me. I was, by far, the most entertaining thing they'd seen since the last white person wandered through. As I sat in the flickering darkness though, watching the light on the hard, flinty green backs of the beetles and in the whites of other people's eyes, I realized I've been operating from a place to total acceptance the last few weeks. I've accepted that this is my reality, that I have little control over anything going on around me, that regardless of how I handle it, there will still be beetles raining down upon me and people who find the color of my skin fascinating. Resistance is futile. Very little ruffles this dirty bird's feathers anymore--not maggots in aforementioned squat toilet, not a hundred little hands in my hair and on my neck, not eating mystery food in the dark, not my skin shedding into little balls of sweat and sand after not showering for four days, not getting a ride in the back of a van, sitting squeezed between two Senegalese women, not having crabs steal my glasses, not being stuck for hours on a riverbank. It's alright. Things happen. Place of acceptance.
Moumbaye by daylight was still sort of gray and squat-y, the town itself was a maze of concrete walls surrounding the family compound areas, and that sort of reminded me of a prison--but with tin roofs. The setting though, was beautiful. I lived during my time there steps from the River Senegal, a wide, glassy body of water that had sandbars in the middle that people swam out to and fished from. Along the river bank were pirogues, the colorful flat boats used for fishing, and goats. But real goats, small, cute goats--not like the evil one at my house in Dakar. The other bank was the Langue de Barbarie, a funny strip of land between the river and the ocean. During the day the adults of my family would scatter and work, either shelling these funny little clam things, or around the compound, and I would be left to the charge of the children. Sometimes this meant I would sit and read or write, and they would crowd around my feet and watch. Sometimes this meant they would pull me along to whatever they were doing--we spent a lot of time on the river, trying to catch one of the thousands of crabs that would skitter out in front of us, or teaching each other games. I think I played Down by the Banks three thousand times. This is not a drill. One day we were picked up by the bus and boated over to the ocean side of the river, and we ran like wild children into the water on this deserted beach, feeling utterly alone and also very much a part of the world. The next day we walked from one town to the other---that's when we hitched a ride in the back of the van. Turns out the hottest part of the day isn't the best for a three-mile round trip walk in Africa. That day a few of us went back to the ocean--that's when the crabs stole my glasses AND we hopped in a boat with 30 fisherman who subsequently forgot us on the return trip, leaving us stranded on the opposite bank. I took a nap. And then that night, there was a Sabar for us--a traditional African celebration dance of feminity. I think they meant wild, tribal, instinctual female power dance, because if that was feminity I would hate to see fighting.
In the end, it was a good experience. Time was up to its usual tricks, but I got to drink tea under the stars. It was only four days and three nights. You can do anything for four days and three nights, I'm here to tell you. Life and time stop for no one, like it or not. And what I really liked was getting to Saint Louis, our next destination, and finding a new appreciation for clean sheets, showers, and a room with a view. Saint Louis is an island city, and our first night we dined in a restaurant on the water--I looked around at the bright and shiny faces around our white-napkin dinner table, and it struck me that I didn't necessarily like this better than the village. It was just different than the village, but I was happy in that moment to have food in front of me, and I was happy in this moment to have food in front of me, and that's all, isn't it? Human is human, no matter where you put it. Not very well thought out, but good enough I guess, for now.
Of course, when I was struck ill that weekend and was having digestive troubles on the five hour bus ride back, I could think of a few places I'd rather be. But oh well. Place of acceptance, right?
*Four days. I finished this Monday, I'm just now posting on Thursday.