Group Update from Senegal
Senegal Group Update – Ceebujen
Kabbas Azhar – Lime
In an amusing effort to be creative, our group has decided that we will all don the guise of our more edible counterparts (though I am sure my body is just as edible as a lime, it’s simply not socially appropriate to say so), and act out as parts of ceebujen - a delightfully dangerous and dangerously delightful dish and somehow relate it back to our experiences in Senegal. Heavy-handed metaphors have never really been a forte of mine, as such, for the sake of this much desired notion of creativity, I shall go where no human has ever ventured before; I shall abandon my humanity and assume the identity of a lime. Not just any lime, but a lime that can type! The fact that my humanity could be cast aside so easily could be construed as depressing, but limes don't get depressed, so I suppose that's a good enough exchange for this conceptual exercise. I also taste good, so huzzah! The lime part of me, that is. Regardless, the point of this inane preamble: Senegal. I'm a lime in Senegal, and people like to squeeze me. Ouch.
I'm squeezed slowly, achingly, every pore stressed and fit to bursting, as a not quite invisible giant hand presses around me in all manners of ways. It’s testing and probing, crushing me for the sake of this dish, this perpetually present yet invariably different Senegalese dish, so that it's all the more appetizing. Sometimes I'm thrown about. Other times I’m thrown away. Just a mere vestige of a thought that lingers irritatingly, a cobweb in the darkened corners of a shuttered room, bereft, void except for the natural evidence of being a void. First though, I'm always cut. Cut right in half, down the middle, through my core, that inner part that holds everything that I am and that I hold to be, my soul that I grasp for in fear. I feel vulnerable, exposed, a mere newborn babe, unable to do anything beyond clench my weak, useless hands at the sheer unfairness of it all, because that thick skin that used to protect me has been sliced right through, by a knife made of awareness of my ignorance, which has left everything bare for the world to see.
As the juice drips, I figure they're quite similar to my tears, spilling and pooling together, a little sour tang punctuated by a smacking of lips adding to the enjoyment of others as they enjoy this delectable dish, this ceebujen. Schadenfreude, I think.
For you see, Senegal pressures me, changes me, teaches me, but most importantly expects of me. Not the petty material expectations regaled by society, those oft esteemed goals heralded by those personages, those somebodies, who could have been anybody. Rather, a kind of spiritual expectation brought to my attention through me. An expectation to persevere, to endure, to flourish in that world where I’m no longer what I used to be, but instead something different. Something new, for stagnation is a danger of its own, one that afflicts mind, body, and spirit, one that I’m all too likely to adhere to, unfortunately.
Yet, Senegal expects. And it makes me deliver.
By no means a divine deliverance, nothing quite worthy of ballads and praise, yet important to me all the same. I deliver by enduring all those little discomforts that I would have pettily complained about, the creature comforts that I never thought I could live without, that often hour long commute that I go about. And you can never forget the fact that I live in a country where I speak no common language with anyone I have come to care about. Yet, I plod on; I meander through, haphazardly perhaps, but with that semblance of a goal, to endure.
I suppose I could look at the husk of what I used to be, and bemoan the seemingly deplorable fact that I've become misshapen and malformed, instead of the perfect circle that I used to be. That perfect symmetry that I held, of the luminescent outer shell that I used to be, of that ideal form that I held to be. Though, as I came to realize certain truths, I realized that it was what I only thought to be. I was never a perfect circle. I wasn't even an oval. I was always filled with bumps and marks, scars and craters, hurts and even more hurts, an ugliness that was hiding only beneath a shiny facade of lime skin.
Well, crap. Now I just feel dumb, though I feel like that’s okay. Because home is where the heart is, or so I think it’s supposed to go, and here I belong.
I rejoice that I'm part of a greater whole. I won't decry my broken shell, misshapen as it was, the barrier that it in reality was, the obstacle that it had always been. Rather, I'll enjoy that I'm part of this greater community, to which I actually add something. I add a flavoring, uniquely my own, that people can even come to like. Because while biting into a lime is not much fun for people (most people, at least) to do, eating lime drenched rice is something that a large majority of people for some reason like to do.
Now that I think of it, a lime isn't a necessary part of ceebujen. Nor am I one of Senegal, I suppose. I'm an accoutrement that adds to Senegal, like a lime adds to ceebujen. I'm an additional flavoring that never was really required. Just like how I was never really required to be in Senegal, just like how my host family didn't really have any need to accept me in their family, just like how my service site didn't ever have a desperate need for my presence there, similar to how no one really ever had this burning need to help me whenever I stumbled in my Wolof or French, similar to all the little incidences where I met people that never really had to help me whenever I was desperate for help (six times lost in Dakar and counting). Yet, I get the feeling that my presence isn't scorned, or shunned, that I’m not an annoying gnat, though sometimes I feel like a mayfly, flitting here and about. I’m not a complaint, or a subtraction, but rather an addition (and dare I say a multiplication?) that hasn’t really hurt, or offended, though I have confounded, and some people (crazy people, really) even delight in my presence. They delight; I can tell, from a turn of the lips here, a crinkling of the eyes there, a smothered chuckle, a humongous guffaw, always with a shining eye.
I'm a lime in Senegal, and people like to squeeze me. I think I'm happy.
Katie Kavanaugh – Fish
Fish. What to write about Fish. Fish: those slimy, disgusting creatures that smell and taste exactly like the polluted waters from whence they came. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the taste of most fish. It’s just that the process of eating our gilled friends from the sea seems almost more trouble than they’re worth. In ceebujen, the fish is often grilled whole with the expectation that those participating in the meal will rip off chunks of the fleshy goodness with their grubby, greasy fingers. Normally, I wouldn’t begrudge this practice – after all, your hands are your God-given utensils. What bothers me is that Mr. Fish is left to his fate with his head still completely intact. Gills, mouth, brain, teeth, everything has been left just as it was at the moment of his unpleasant and untimely death, including the eyes: eyes that stare accusingly out of the bowl screaming “you did this to me” as you rip into Mr. Fish’s delectable flesh, mutilating him more with every savory morsel. That glare, frozen in time, is one so cold it could convert even the most vicious carnivore to a life of ardent vegetarianism; perhaps I’m exaggerating. But even in death, Mr. Fish does possess one last method of retribution. Tiny, translucent, and dagger-like fish bones are an almost invisible threat, stabbing you in the gums or lodging in your throat when you least expect it. As you sit there struggling to remove these unwelcome intruders while hiding your discomfort from your Senegalese counterparts (who have perfected the art of eating around the bones), you can almost imagine that the lips of Mr. Fish have turned up into a mocking grin – or maybe it’s just a trick of the light.
Yes, eating fish is difficult, uncomfortable, and downright unpleasant at times. However, at the end of the meal, sated taste buds, a full stomach, and a feeling of overall content overshadow Mr. Fish’s ghostly efforts to destroy my ceebujen experience. Perhaps this is a metaphor for my time in Senegal. In the past three months I have battled gastrointestinal problems that have, for better or worse, left me very familiar with squat toilets; endured cultural “awkward turtles” such as figuring out how to use said squat toilet without toilet paper and learning the consequences of not going through the necessary yet often arduous process of Senegalese greetings; and suffered numerous miscommunications with my clumsy Wolof and even worse French that had even my 10-month-old host sister laughing at me. Like ceebujen’s Mr. Fish, all of these things have attempted to make my time here in Senegal difficult to swallow. In the moment, these experiences were embarrassing, confusing, and as far as GI issues are concerned, definitely unpleasant. Yet, they do not detract from the overall feeling of contentedness that I have when I think about my life here in Senegal. The happiness I feel when I make people laugh by cracking a joke or attempting to dance mbalax; the love I feel when my host parents call me their child; the pride I experience when I am able to successfully communicate my needs – all of these things are more than worth those small periods of discomfort. While enjoying the different flavors of Senegal I have experienced the painful sting of fish bones and eyes’ uncomfortable gaze, but I have persevered. Not every moment of my experience here in Senegal is to be enjoyed, just like not every bite of the fish is to be; however, I’d like to think that the bad along with the good makes the meal even more fulfilling. At the end of a meal of ceebujen, mouth and throat scarred from sharp bones and soul guilty from that unrelenting stare, you feel full of Mr. Fish’s savory meat. I know I will continue to have both wonderful and uncomfortable moments as I continue to partake in my life here in Senegal. I pray that the good bites outnumber the bad, but no matter what happens, I know that at the end of my nine month journey I will feel full from the many rich experiences I have undergone. What more can a person ask for from a good meal?
Miranda Schwartz Bolef – Rice
It’s the base of every platter of ceebujen, its comforting taste flavoring every bite – the background that the fish and vegetables lie upon. Cooked in the steam and juices of the vegetables and fish, spiced with traditional Senegalese herbs and mixes, the rice of ceebujen lies like a stage backdrop in front of which the actors – carrot, potato, swordfish, cabbage – entertain and perform. And though easy to overlook in its abundance, this rice is a dynamic and complex entity in and of itself.
The adventures and experiences each of us undergo every day take place upon a similarly delectable background. Our rice these past three months has come in strange forms: smothering heat, ubiquitous sand and trash, loudspeakered calls to prayer five times each day, butiks (general stores) on every street corner, sheep and chickens cooped up on roadsides, sand alleys, baobab fruit crèmes, hectic markets brimming with clothes and appliances, brightly-colored Kar Rapides zooming around with young men hanging out the backs. Stranger still is how completely normal these features are now, features which just a few months ago seemed foreign and exotic to me, and a month before that were completely beyond the scope of my understanding. As Emma Claire commented a few days ago as she stared out the window of our #4 bus at the crowded market of Medina, “I love that this is my normal!”
Indeed, I never would have expected that my normal would include sleeping each night in a “Bug Hut,” fan set to high; that my every day would begin with morning calls to prayer and a nice bucket shower; that plastic teapots filled with water could so comfortably replace toilet paper; that my morning walk to the bus stop would include dodging horse-drawn carts, crossing a busy highway, and deflecting the numerous talibe (six-to-ten-year old beggar children) with sad “Baalma, benenyon”s (“I’m sorry; next time”); that living in a compound (essentially five houses in one, with a common entrance and yard area) with over 30 other people would feel so normal. These are the details I forget to mention to friends and family, features so standard I forget they’re not intuitive to everyone. This “normal,” the background to my daily activities and adventures: this is the rice of Senegal, the country’s true essence.
At the core of it all is the sense of an intangible – yet omnipresent and omnipotent – human support network, which results in a general feeling of connection to every human being I meet. Walking down the streets of Yoff or Bourgiba, I know that I can depend on any and every person for directions home or language help. I know the vendors I greet each day on my way to work and the strong Senegalese matriarchs on the bus will give anyone who tries to bother me a talking-to they’ll never forget, will keep me safe from harm. And as the weeks have progressed, I’ve become a part of this network of support: I break up squabbles between children on the streets of Yoff, I buy my coworkers snacks when they’re too busy to leave the office, I hold young children on the bus on my lap while their mothers pay the fare. From the three months I’ve lived in this country, I’ve found that sayings like “Boroom làmmiñ du réer” (He who has a tongue can never get lost) and “Nit, nit ay garabam” (The best medicine for a person is another person) are more than just proverbs: they’re a way of life. Here, people are there for each other; they help each other out. In my experiences so far, I’ve found the emphasis on people, on the worth of each person, everywhere in Senegal – in the extended greetings, in hospitality and kindness to complete strangers – based only on shared participation in the community of human beings. Human connection is the focus of life here, what I’ve come to value above all else. Take away the little chats I have each day with random passersby, my coworkers, my family, my vendors – the people which form the humming, dynamic background of my life – and I would have nothing. The network of humanity here – supporting you, nourishing you, ready to catch you if you fall – is the most defining aspect of Senegal for me. This is my rice.
An example: my first experience with Senegalese music, a Baaba Maal concert we Bridge Year students attended last month. During the performance, one of the backup dancers particularly impressed me, and I resolved to find him afterwards and tell him so. After congratulating and snapping a photo with him, we began to chat. The next week, I had lunch at his house. As I was introduced to what felt like the entire neighborhood of Niary Tally, and then sat chatting with his mother for a good half hour while my friend made us attaya (popular Senegalese tea), I was struck by how rapidly the transition from stranger to friend had occurred – how wholly and without doubt or reluctance I had been welcomed into this young man’s home. The openness and honesty of Senegalese interactions still occasionally baffles me, so completely different is it from the suspicious, wary manner with which strangers are regarded in America. In Senegal, interactions are more honest than in the US, far less convoluted and cautious, because strangers are seen as people – not to fear or automatically be suspicious of, because we’re all members of the same community of human beings. It’s simple: you’re a person, I’m a person, we’re here to help each other.
This rice fills me up every day. I live off it, and just like “you are what you eat,” it’s becoming a part of me, adding its new spices and ideas to my world outlook. And just as the rice in ceebujen is ultimately what fills you, its starchy goodness satisfying your hunger, so does Senegal fill my soul. There’s something wholesome about a society in which human interaction and connection is placed above all, where buying groceries entails greeting and chatting with your vendors, and perfect strangers can transform into friends in a matter of minutes: it’s filling, it makes me feel content.
This rice is my lifeblood, my nourishment in Senegal. And oh, is it delicious.
Avichai Ozur Bass – Nyambi
Nyambis are delicious. They are fat yellowish tubers that put one in the mind of potatoes, if potatoes were cylindrical and had strings running up the sides. They taste golden, almost buttery. I think that they’re the best vegetables in ceebujen. They’re not as unpleasantly soft as the potatoes, don’t have as weird an aftertaste as the cabbage, and no one’s fighting over them like they are with the carrots.
But they’re impossible to corral into your section of the bowl with your pliable tin spoon: you’ll end up sending the nyambi skittering across endless plains of rice and sending your spoon clattering to the depths of the ceebujen, much to the amusement of the family sitting around the bowl. Cutting them requires almost superhuman dexterity, as when a mere mortal tries, the spoon’s round edge sends the nyambi flying through the air to land in some hapless person’s portion of ceebujen. Rice will splatter up into that person’s face, and you’ll whisper a sheepish “sorry,” as they shake their head slowly with that expression that says “what a stupid toubab,” while the rest of the family convulses with laughter, partially at your idiocy, and partially at a little grain of rice still hanging off the nose of the nyambomb victim. The only way to eat a piece of nyambi is to wait for a world weary Senegalese mother to take the whole tuber and divide it with her bare hands, perfectly fairly, amongst the squalling family members around the bowl. It’s hard for me, an American who values his self- reliance and independence, to be forced to rely on someone else like that. But I have to suck it up, because there’s no other way to get a bite of nyambi.
Since the beginning, being here in Senegal has been like being in a giant bowl of nyambis. It’s not that I’m literally drowning in millions of root vegetables or anything like that, because that would be bizarre, albeit delicious and probably good for my body’s supply of vitamin A. It’s a metaphor. Everything is interesting or funny or delicious, but only if I let go of the need to control things and allow someone else help me cut the nyambi. Like one time, two weeks into the program, in our group service project. We were staying in a village outside Dakar, with no running water, literally spending each day shoveling dirt (for a turtle research institute.) My clothes and everybody else’s clothes were starting to smell like turtle dung, and the group decided to bring in water by donkey cart to do laundry in buckets in our compound’s sandy, tree shaded little courtyard. I watched Aissatou, who was there to cook and clean, do some laundry, and, when the group went to get soap and buckets to start the process, I decided to go first. I picked up a brown shirt and started to scrub it with soapy water. Aissatou caught a glimpse of what I was doing and came over to help me, but I wanted to figure it out for myself, so I waved her off. After a good twenty minutes, though, the shirt still smelled like turtle dung. Aissatou was sitting next to me, face tied in a knot, and it looked like she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at my utter incompetence. I wanted to keep trying to wash the shirt, but the group only had four buckets, and everyone else needed to do laundry, too. It was decided that Aissatou would help me. She picked up the shirt, and, frowning at me the entire time, scrubbed it spotless. Highly competent clothes washers here can make the clothes make a squeaky noise (squeaky clean. Ha.). Five minutes of squeaking later, it became apparent that the shirt was not brown, but green. She showed me how to wash pants and socks, and soon all of my clothes were clean. Had I not let Aissatou cut the nyambi, or at least show me how to cut the nyambi, I would never have had clean clothes.
We were thrust into this experience with no linguistic knowledge, no cultural knowledge, really, no anything knowledge. There’s been no way to “go it alone,” the way I like to in America, refusing my parents’ help for the sake of independence or studying by myself to avoid getting distracted. I let other people guide me through the language, the culture, how to be respectful, how to joke, even how to do laundry. And so far the experience has been incredible. The food has tasted amazing, I’ve learned a lot, but only because I let other people divide the nyambis.
Emma Claire Jones – Spices
I have always loved food. I love eating food, cooking food, talking about food, and talking around food. And it’s not just me: my entire family has a similar love affair with food. We plan our vacations around where and what we’re going to eat. We take pictures of especially beautiful meals, both at restaurants and at home. Half of our time at home is spent in the kitchen or talking around the dinner table, and probably half of those conversations are about food.
When I got my prep package from Princeton in July the first thing I did was to look at the health section to make sure I didn’t have to get yet another vaccine (too bad, my 11th shot), but the second thing was to look up the section on Senegalese food in the guidebook. It said very little about Senegalese cuisine – only that the main staple was rice and the unofficial national dish was called ceebujen. My curiosity was not satisfied.
Ceebujen remained a total mystery to me up until the first wonderful bite. The dish came in one giant round bowl: red rice topped with a whole fish, and an array of vegetables, carrots and strange round eggplants and an unidentifiable green paste. And it was wonderful. It did not disappoint. However, I had quite a bit of curiosity left. While I knew in theory what ceebujen was, thus dispelling some of the mystery, there was a flavor, a ceebujen-y-ness, that I still could not place.
I have since eaten many, many more plates of ceebujen, and I have started to form a relationship with the dish. My Independent Study Project (ISP) is cooking (surprise!), so not only have I eaten ceebujen, but I’ve gotten up close and personal with the ingredients and cooking methods that make it what it is. After spending time cooking with multiple members of my host family and with Kine, Babacar’s wife, I think I may have figured out the secret of the ceebujen-y-ness that was so delicious and perplexing at first. No matter how long the fish is cooked or what order in which the vegetables are added to the steaming broth, there is one ingredient that always makes its way into the pot: seasoning. The first time I heard a cook talking about this wonderful spice mix I thought he was talking about “magic” instead of Maggi, one of the most popular spice brands, and I laughed about it as a funny misunderstanding. I have since come to realize, though, that magic and the spice mix here are one and the same. Now that I have been eating this seasoning for 3 months, the flavors have become just as familiar to me as the food I eat in the United States.
I had a strange experience while at a documentary showing at the Institut Français a couple of weeks ago. As I watched the director interview someone in her home village, I had a sudden urge to box up a copy of the DVD and send it to my family in the US with a note saying “Look, all of this is familiar to me! This is my life now!” The mix of French and Wolof that I found so confusing at first sounded completely normal to my ears, and even though I didn’t understand every word of the conversation, I was able to pick up some of the meaning just from following the Senegalese intonation that has become so familiar to me. Everything about the scenery of the film also felt not just less foreign, but familiar, from the baobab and palm trees outside to the building styles to the décor in the houses. I even recognized several prints of wax, the patterned fabric that traditional Senegalese clothes are made of. Even the interactions I saw in the documentary reminded me of experiences I’ve had with my host family, particularly the good-natured teasing that Senegalese women love so much.
It made me happy every time I saw another aspect of the film that struck a chord because it made me realize that my time in Dakar has become just as much a part of my life as the years I spent in the United States, just as the flavor of ceebujen has become part of my palate. Now when I eat ceebujen I still taste the flavors that I thought were so different at first, but it no longer feels like I’m eating at a foreign restaurant, it feels like I’m eating at home. My everyday life is still accompanied by a sense of awe, but it’s no longer awe of what’s around me, but of the fact that everything around me is now an irreplaceable part of my life.
Anna Simon – Bitter Eggplant
After the spoons have all been put down, the hands washed, the bellies (over)filled, one vegetable almost always remains more or less intact on the ceebujen plate: the bitter eggplant.
Its name gives a fairly accurate description of its flavor--the soft, seedy blandness of a standard eggplant combined with the slight nagging at the sides of the tongue that classifies bitterness. Those who love the vegetable's flavor profile are difficult to find; most diners pass over its greenish-yellow skin in favor of the sweeter carrot, soft potato or tender fish.
Upon first arriving in Senegal, a traveler will wonder why this vegetable, uneaten day after day, continues to be included in each batch of rice. She may occasionally nibble at it, only to decide, every time, that it's better left undisturbed. After a while, she hardly notices it, except when she accidentally gets a spoonful of its acerbic flesh.
Then, one day, the rice tastes wrong. The traveler is confused--something is off, but what is it? This meal is almost ceebujen, but it's definitely not ceebujen. She surveys the bowl, and eventually realizes what's wrong: the grumpy bitter eggplant is absent from his post. The outcast vegetable's importance is finally revealed: ceebujen without Joxota is not ceebujen.
As time goes on, the traveler will learn that the bitter eggplant does not confine himself to lunchtime. Sometimes, he appears as the midday sun. Sitting on a full tata, coming home from work, it seems to the traveler that the bus may melt on the spot. She thinks maybe she could do without the heat and the sweat it induces. At the same time, however, she can't imagine a Senegal without it. Conversations started with a cry of "Dafa tang!" probably make up about 50% of her interactions in this country... she wonders if those discussions could have taken place without the heat to prompt them. Would she have met Cheikh Diouf, who always makes sure she gets the right klando on her way home? Perhaps not. And what about her friends, the djembe makers, on her walk to the bus? They invited her to sit with them in the shade, to get out of the sun for a bit. It seems she might not have met them on a cooler day. So often is her experience impacted and enriched by the heat: Senegal without tangay is not Senegal.
Sometimes the bitter vegetable appears instead as a communication barrier, when even something the
traveler should understand has no meaning when she hears it. Or, as happens more often the more she learns, she understands perfectly but can't quite find the right words to form a response. What a nuisance, the traveler thinks at first. Soon, though, she begins to see the rice under her yellow-green friend. She finds it's impossible to take herself too seriously when speaking her pidgin Frolof; her mix-ups bring numerous bouts of laughter with her sisters that she wouldn't trade for the world. Her shy host brother slowly breaks his shell and begins a heroic effort to teach her some Wolof. Her family is patient, supportive, and kind, and she knows: an English-speaking Sall family would not be the Sall family.
The traveler sees the bitter eggplant daily, skulking in daily solicitations for her phone number, in pushy Baye Fall beggars, in the clothing shoved in front of her at the market. But she knows that without them, Senegal would not be Senegal; Dakar would not be Dakar. She no longer wishes for these annoyances to disappear; she simply pushes them to the side of the plate with the fish bones and goes for the rice underneath. After all, without her grouchy friend, she knows the carrot would not taste as sweet. Perhaps this is the simplest truth she's found on this side of the world: Life without a bitter eggplant is not quite right.
Omid Abrishamchiam – Carrot
Four of us sit around a deliciously vast bowl of ceebujen, eagerly anticipating the arrival of a fifth so that we can taste this oft-discussed dish. Babacar, our on-site instructor, has graciously invited us to his house on our second day for a traditional Senegalese meal, followed by Senegal's trademark, mint-infused tea, ataaya. As we wait for our group member to sit down, I give a quick once-over to the bowl in front of me.
As humans often unconsciously do, I immediately look for similarities and differences. In this case, I compare the ingredients used in our lunch with ingredients used in the United States. Among the various foods that I glance over, the muted orange of the carrot is the first to catch my eye.
You could say that I've always been a bit of a carrot person. My favorite cartoon growing up was Looney Tunes, and I may or may not have tried to emulate Bugs Bunny when I was little by eating through a large bag of mini-carrots, before asking the world, “What's up Doc?” In any event, a sense of relief washes over me as I find the carrot. I recognize it, I've tasted it, and I like it. In a world of consistently new sights, sounds, and experiences, reminders of stability are coveted.
Our fifth (finally) takes a seat, and we begin our first ceebujen culinary adventure. I instinctively guide my spoon to the carrot, taking a chunk of the orange root with me. And to no one's surprise, it tastes exactly like a carrot. I'm glad. If the dish doesn't appeal to me, at least I can find solace in that portion. As I work my way around the dish, I spot a green, goopy substance that appears both enticing in its promises of new experiences and terrifying in its gooey texture. I ask what it is, and find out it's known as bissap. I decide to go for it, and I immediately regret the rather large amount I've piled on to my spoon as my tongue ignites on fire. My hand shoots out, searching for my water bottle, and my internal fire department finds a way to extinguish the burning sensation in my mouth.
After that, I'm done. I eat some more carrot, some more rice, and call it a lunch.
Five of us sit on the roof, waiting for my yaay (mother) to bring up the ceebujen she has been preparing all day. It's too hot to eat downstairs. Even the fan blowing on high isn't going to mitigate the effect of the heat and humidity. We're seated above the district of Apecsy, able to observe all the passersby walking around late in the autumn night. While the stars are obscured by Dakar's lights, we occasionally see an airplane from the nearby airport taking off.
I'm slightly hungry, yet I'm content. My seven year old host brother and I are laying down and waiting for more airplanes to fly by. As they do, baby Rassoul starts shouting at the air, piloting the plane through the cloudy night.
We hear the methodical tap-tap of my mother's flip flops hitting the concrete steps, and we jump up, laying out our eating mat. I take an instinctive glance at the bowl my mother places down, and I spot the distinctive ceeb-u-qonq, or red rice, topped with cabbage, potatoes, bissap, and several cooked tuna fish.
I work my way around the bowl, delighted by the constant chatter of my rather large host family. The Wolof in the air is rhythmic; I'm starting to recognize who's talking just by the beats they use in their speech. I turn my attention back to the bowl. My first stop is the red rice, and I'm confronted by a memory from earlier that week. A young talibe was walking down the street, dressed in raggedy clothes and lacking shoes. A women, who didn't appear wealthy herself, stopped the boy and handed him a plastic tupperware container filled with what appeared to be red rice.
I snap out of my recollection when one of my family members (don't ask how we're related) asks me about the American conception of time. I'm told that Americans believe that “jot muy khalis” (time is money). The phrase takes a little while to translate in my head; I have to work through the literal translation before realizing what she's referring to.
I chuckle. And I remember a lazy Saturday a couple weeks ago, when my host brother/cousin Ablai and I talked about religion for what had to have been hours. The existence of God, evolution, nothing was off the table. Time flew, but not in the way it does when you're working against the clock to finish a Literary Critique for second period. Time in Senegal, like the ocean tide, moves rhythmically. Fast and slow are intertwined, from the yellow and black taxi cars speeding down the road before decelerating to slow for the abundance of horse carts, to the bustling Via-Via vacating for the Friday prayer.
I snap out of my philosophical daze when I notice my brother Babacar reaching over for a nyambi, or hard root vegetable. This type of root has broken more than a few spoons in its time – just ask the ceeb-shack owner I bought lunch from about a month ago. Thankfully, I didn't completely snap the spoon that meal, and I was met with a sympathetic glance from the owner before being asked in French how I liked his ceebujen. I, knowing little French, responded in Wolof, and a conversation was born– which, to my surprise, I understood.
This experience rings in my head as I aid my little brother in cutting the nyambi. He takes his share; I, mine. My spoon hovers for a second, before approaching the carrot. A grin spreads across my face as I cut a portion off. And I take a bite of carrot, this time with a touch of bissap.