Group Update from Senegal
Burning as we are with an intense desire to be creative, cool, and just special in general, we set out to create a subtle theme of interconnectedness that allowed for our intensely individual experiences to be displayed in all their special glory. The following is the unfortunate result.
I’m getting on a bus, an activity that five months ago would have filled me with dread — bringing with it nightmarish recollections of the cramped, sweaty, overall excruciating moments that categorized some of my first travels around Dakar. However, some say that the brain can get used to anything so, after five months and the groundbreaking discovery of a nearby bus terminus (meaning, Inshallah, I always get a seat), I have begun to tolerate – maybe even enjoy – busses. Now, these rides - which used to offer me only the chance to get overly familiar with somebody’s bulky backpack or, even worse, enormous behind – present me with the wonderful opportunity to slip uninterrupted into my thoughts – a feat that is rare in Senegal as you are always expected to greet, meet, or interact with someone in some way. Thus, today at some unspecified time, in some unspecified place, I am getting on an unspecified bus traveling to an unspecified place. The details don’t matter, for on this trip the meaning truly is in the journey, not the destination. Taking my preferred window seat, I am a wanderer, a drifter, an introvert alone with her thoughts at last: I am happy. Peering out the window I behold the sights that have come to make up my new home: colorful boubous and head scarves stand in stark contrast to the drab buildings and stalls as people go about their business, buying, selling, chatting, cooking - a hum of activity that for, the time being, I am content to watch from behind this smudgy layer of glass. The sudden rattling of the engine tells me that it’s time to plug in my headphones and the bus begins to move not-so-gently forward. Blocking out the world around me, I descend swiftly into the comfort of my own mind.
Unconsciously, my thoughts land on Modou Lo and Eumeu Sene. Who the heck are these people? Well, not too long ago, I was asking myself the same question. As it turns out, for all of you who are not Senegalese wrestling buffs (and I’m not talking about that phony WWE garbage), Modou Lo is one of the biggest names on the scene, having been defeated only once in his last 15 matches. Who is Eumeu Sene, you ask? Well, in my opinion, he was just the unfortunate bloke chosen to face Lo. So why am I wasting my 20 minutes in peace reminiscing on these two enormous men (both in ego and body mass)? It turns out that the rivalry between these two would fuel one of the biggest events in Senegal and I - at least in terms of my host family - would be caught in the middle.
Friday, January 31, 2014 was the big day and fans of both men gathered in full force to show their support. Dakar was one big carnival, with more and more banners flying, drums pounding, and crowds amassing as the day wore on. As much as I enjoyed the electric buzz of the city that Friday afternoon, I also felt pangs of anxiety as I walked home--not because I was afraid that my bag would get stolen in the ever growing crowd, but because I had not yet chosen the wrestler that I would support. For the past week I had been embroiled in a turf war, with my mother and host brother cheering on Eumeu Sene and my host father rooting for Modou Lo. I had been subjected to hours of playful banter and not-so-playful argument centering on the strength, training, and endurance of each man. Personal valor also came into the discussion, with my host mom calling Modou Lo a “Sai Sai” (a ladies’ man) and my host father comparing Eumeu Sene to a girl (I was not sure if I should be insulted by that comment). With passion they had made their appeals and I had yet to decide whether I was going to be a Democrat or a Republican– an Eumeu Sene fanatic or a Modou Lo die hard. Thanking God for the fact that my host father only uses his machete to cut open coconuts, I pushed open the door of my apartment and braced myself for the frenzy to come…
A not-so-gentle shake brings me back to the present. Looking behind me, I find the culprit: a small child, his face one of the many that have blurred together during my time here in Senegal. He hands me his change with a smirk, his eyes only slightly boggled at the unfamiliar sight of a living, breathing white girl in front of him, telling me his destination – pinning on an extra word at the end of his request: toubab. With a forceful smile and only a hint of annoyance (I have gotten used to being singled out as a foreigner) I hand his change to the person on my right and pick up my train of thought where I left off.
My family’s apartment is still; the only hint that it is inhabited by anyone at all comes from the sound of the TV blaring in the living room. Taking off my sandals, I creep towards the living room, afraid that at any second a family member will materialize to convince me that I should support their man. Luckily, I make it to the living room unscathed and, to my surprise, find that my host father is the lone spectator of the match. At my perplexed look, he attempts to explain the lack of chaos in my household. From what I gather from his harried explanation, my host mother and brother have left to go and watch the match at another apartment - apparently one more sympathetic to Eumeu Sene - due to a rather heated argument over who would have privileges over the TV remote. This rather bizarre event simultaneously eased my inner turmoil and reaffirmed my belief in a higher power, as it made my decision very clear: I would be rooting for Modou Lo along with my host father. I wanted to dance, sing, or shout for joy at this revelation but instead, I take my place next to my host father on the couch and turned my focus on the TV. The match is about to begin as Eumeu Sene and Modou Lo trade their modern Nike sweat suits for their traditional uniforms - what looks to me to be giant baby diapers adorned with an assortment of traditional charms used for good luck and protection. Aside from the fact that they look like giant babies in a sand pit, the two appear to be ready with muscles tensed, eyes focused, and stance firm as they prepare to do battle.
Here the details become fuzzy in my scarily senile mind and thus the story fast forwards to the rather spectacular ending.
Modou Lo is in a precarious situation as he is lifted into the air by his opponent. I clutch onto my host fathers hand, engrossed in the match after just a few short minutes, and breathe a sigh of relief as our chosen wrestler lands on one foot, pivots, and scuttles away to safety in one swift movement that takes my breath away. It is clear that I have chosen the better man – although it takes another ten minutes for Modou Lo to pin Eumeu Sene to the ground in a hard-won yet decisive victory. Before I know it, I am lifted into the air by my giddy host father. He carries me out to the balcony where our high pitched girlish screams join the roar of what seems like a hundred voices, cheering, yelling, and whooping on the streets. I have rarely felt so alive.
My bus stop appears in the distance and it is time to leave the comfort of my metal bus friend. I descend the stairs reluctantly and, like a newborn child entering the world for the first time, I am momentarily stunned by the whir of activity that suddenly surrounds me. The sight of a horse charet nearly running into a Number 4 bus across the street spurs me into action as I begin my journey again - this time on foot. Blocking out the heat, smog, and noise I retreat once again into the relative calm of my mind. The story continues:
The road is packed with celebrators - old and young alike - as I make my way towards my aunt’s house with my host father, preparing to gloat to my extended family about Modou Lo’s outstanding victory. I skip down the sidewalk, enjoying the joyous atmosphere that surrounds me. Earlier my host mother had asked me why I did not want to go to the stadium to watch the match in person - after all, I did have the money and the connections. How could I explain to her that this night would not have been nearly as meaningful without my crazy and, yes, sometimes dysfunctional family by my side?
This time I peacefully drift out of my thoughts. I slowly lift my gaze up from the sandy alleyway at my feet and find myself gazing at the familiar buildings of Yoff. I smile to myself. At this moment I realize something: on this rather vague journey I do indeed have a destination. I am going home and I am content.
The girl with blue glasses is chatting with her favorite coffee vendor when she sees the number 4 bus approaching. She flags it down, lucky to live close enough to its starting point to get a seat before it fills up. As the bus starts moving, she buys her ticket and settles in to her favorite spot—the window seat across from the back door. The beginning of the ride is slow, as the bus picks up its first few passengers and settles into its route. It is not unlike the young woman’s course as she started the journey that led to this bus ride—she remembers when she first arrived in Senegal, when the number 4 bus was but a mystery to her. When she hardly knew anybody; when she hardly spoke Wolof; when every step was new and had to be taken slowly, slowly—ndank ndank. The bus seems so big, she thinks, when almost nobody is on it. Dakar seemed so big too, when the only Senegalese person she knew was her instructor and even Yoff’s small market was hard for her to find. An empty vessel waiting to be filled.
And fill it will—by the time the bus exits Yoff and reaches the busy Autoroute, there is standing room only on the ligne quatre. The girl with blue glasses interrupts her thoughts to pass a 500CFA bill to the ticket man: “Petersen, nyar.” She passes the two tickets to the person who gave her the bill and watches them float through a series of hands until they reach their owner at the front of the bus: A winning round of bus-ticket telephone, a game she’s become quite fond of (and quite good at, if she does say so herself). She remembers how foreign it seemed at first, how remarkable it was that everybody got their ticket and change despite the sea of people between them and the man who writes the tickets. After just a few weeks in Dakar, however, she saw that it was ordinary—everybody just trying to get where they’re going and making sure everyone else does, too. After five months, it has become just as obvious to her to let a stranger’s kid sit on her lap as to keep her feet out of the aisle.
The girl’s thoughts are interrupted once again as a young man struggles past the crowd in an attempt to get off the bus. His path is blocked by two enormous grandmothers, and as he struggles to squeeze past them, the bus begins to move. In the US he may simply have had to walk back to his destination from the next stop down the line, but in Senegal, riding the bus is a team effort. A chorus of voices rings out to assure his descent with cries of “May ko! May ko mu watch!” The driver hears and brings the vehicle to a stop just as the man clears the second old woman. He descends just a few feet from his intended destination—Well done, team.
The girl turns her thoughts to her own “team” in this country: her host brother, who stayed at a Sabar until 3 a.m. with her and Ndeye Ami instead of hanging out with his friends to make sure they were safe; her friends from the Artists’ Village, who always call after she leaves to make sure she made it home in peace; the radio technician who’ll wake up early to keep her company when nobody else has arrived at the station. They are more than a team, really. They are her brothers and sisters, her moms and dads.
A horn blares and startles the girl as the bus lurches to a stop. Out the front window she sees that the bus has reached the roundabout at Gueltappe, as have what seems like thousands of other cars, motorcycles, busses, and horse-driven carts. One such saret has just very nearly avoided running head-first into the side of her bus. As the driver grumbles about the traffic and careless horsemen, the girl smiles. How lucky she feels to be in this place, where it’s nothing extraordinary for a horse and a bus to be in the same traffic jam.
She has not yet reached the end of her ride, but the girl stands up. “Demandelma arret,” she calls to the ticket man, delighting in the multilingual nature of her request to get off the bus. She descends, melting in (as best she can, given her nationality) to the hustle around her. She has decided to walk the rest of the route she knows so well—not to escape the bus, but rather to stretch out her voyage through this magnificent city just a little bit longer.
You look at a white bus with blue racing stripes down the side. Tear your gaze away from its beautifully square-ish and interestingly rusted body to see the door. Go in. You’ll see seats all around, tastefully threadbare black plastic cushions over the highest quality bent and dinged aluminum this side of the Atlantic. In the middle of it all, a cage for the ticket vendor. That’s my spot. For you see, by night, I may just be a regular guy struggling to feed his family in Yoff, but by day, I am Cageman! I preside over the prestigious Number Four bus; the chief artery from Yoff to Plateau, Dakar’s spinal cord, the envy of all other bus lines. I am commander in chief of the bus’ ephemeral yet mighty community, arbiter of all onboard disputes, and harsh but fair distributer of justice. My family comes from a long line of Cagemen going all the way back to Sundiata Keita’s very first Cagemen in the empire of Mali, where all cagemen sat in gilded acacia wood thrones in the centers of their horse-drawn buses. All who climb aboard love and fear me, for it is I, Cageman, who sits in the cage in the very center of the bus from which I distribute my rulings. Truth be told, I mostly distribute tickets and change, but there’s nothing like a little self- delusion to get you out of bed in the morning.
Fantasies of the glory days of ticket sellers quickly melted under the gaze of my angry wife.
She said “You’re late.”
I said “Smffft,” and promptly rolled over, only to be pushed violently out of bed. Every single day I get up at the same time (very much on time, may I add), wooden window slats covering nothing but the darkness of the morning at 6:30, and every single day she says the same thing, always only slightly higher-pitched than the call to prayer in the background. I imagine that one day, her voice’s frequency will resonate with the muezzin’s, and her head will explode, liberating me to sleep for another blissful five minutes. But it never does, and she always force feeds me bread with chocolate spread (chokoleka: champions’ delight) and sweet instant coffee while ruthlessly pushing me out the door to the sound of our five kids getting out of bed in the same energetic and excited way as I do. She’s the hand that turns our house’s rusty crank, day after day, year after year.
Senegalese tradition demands that you greet every one of your neighbors on the way to work. You have to ask how they are doing (answer: I am here only), ask what they ate for breakfast, and point out an obvious action that they are taking (such as sitting. “Hello, neighbor, you are sitting,” is a good example. Instead of the response: “Hello neighbor, your powers of observation are astounding,” or “get out of my house,” they have to say “Yes. I am sitting”). By the end of my short and sandy walk to the garage, I had found out that eight hundred and ninety people were here only; five thousand were, indeed, sitting; seventy millions’ families were at peace; and every single one of them ate bread with chocolate spread (chokoleka: champions’ delight) for breakfast. By garage I mean this little plot of sand from where the four bus leaves. I greet my driver, Abdoulayekl (who has, surprisingly, also eaten bread with chokoleka: champions’ delight), and we get on our bus.
Obviously, I was exaggerating the cageman’s role earlier, but I really do like my job. My seat is comfortable, Abdoulaye is a decent guy, (even if he does complain about his wives a lot, who seem to have unionized against him,) and we get the most interesting people on the bus. I spend most of my time wondering where they all come from, and where they are all going. I do several runs each day starting in Yoff, the northern part of the city, going all the way down to crowded, muggy Petersen bus station in the downtown Medina district. Each run takes about an hour, and I’m generally either listening to music or making small talk with the travelers. The runs are kind of boring, and I rarely pay attention to where we are, if we’re not at one of the two bus stations. Sometimes something interesting will happen, like hitting a horse cart this afternoon near roundabout Gueltappe. It was funny looking at the toubabs’ expressions, (there were an unusual amount on the bus; they usually take taxis,) and Abdoulaye got frazzled as he is wont to do and honked the horn a million times, but the charet (horse cart) driver cared not one bit.
When we got to Petersen bus station I went outside into the throng of commuters and breathed in the fresh morning air (or at least, as fresh as you can get in a crowded bus terminal in a market district in a crowded megalopolis in a developing country with limited sanitation infrastructure whose main source of protein is fish,) and looked at my watch. Excellent. I bought two bags of hibiscus bissap juice, one for me and one for Abdoulaye, and strode happily back onto the bus to sit next to him in the front before we made the return trip to Yoff. I leaned back in my seat and smiled to myself as he prattled on about his wives and kids.
It’s Fat Tuesday in Dakar. I’m sitting in a white rented Ndiaga Ndiaye bus on my way to the SOS Children’s Villages preschool’s Mardi Gras party, completely surrounded by children. The kids are dressed up in different Mardi Gras costumes – nurses, superheroes, princesses, animals, old Pulaar people – but one thing they have in common is that they are all singing at the top of their lungs. This being Senegal, the second our bus pulled out of the parking lot a mini djembe magically appeared in the passenger seat and one of the maitresses started singing “Mardi Gras, ne t’en va pas, on aura des crepes, on aura des crepes!” Less than a minute later, all 40+ preschoolers have stopped trying to climb over their seats and have joined in. The result is an almost deafening but entirely joyful chorus of tiny voices that carries out of the windows and into the surrounding street. As we pass through the streets of Dakar, people stop to look at our passing mini concert; some even start dancing on the sidewalks. A passing horse cart driver almost runs into the side of the bus ahead of us because instead of watching the road he was merging into, he was trying to sing along with the preschoolers. He causes a dramatic stop, but even through that the children continue to sing. These singing children, and all of the children who are part of my life here, are the source of some of my best experiences and funniest stories in Senegal.
At my work I am constantly surrounded by kids. I work as an English teacher/general helper at SOS Children’s Villages, an organization that houses and takes care of underprivileged and orphaned kids. I work in the organization’s preschool and elementary school, both of which include students from SOS Villages and from the surrounding area. My students are often unruly and difficult to control, but none of the difficult moments matter when my students finally form a full grammatically correct sentence or when I’m greeted in the morning by shouts of “Good morning Ms. Jones! How are you?”
Even when I’m not at work, I still have my younger host siblings to provide me with more than enough hilarious stories and cute interactions. My 4 year old host nephew Saliou and I leave for our respective preschools around the same time most mornings, so I get to eat my breakfast accompanied by witty observations like:
“Ramatoulaye [my Senegalese name], there’s a camel on TV! That camel is crazy.”
“Ramatoulaye, why aren’t you taking me to school? It’s because you’re old!”
“No I’m not, you’re the old one, Saliou.”
“No, no! I’m not even 4 years old yet. I’m going to school now.” (we celebrated his 4th birthday just 2 months ago)
Every day when I get home from work or group session, Ramatoutou, my 3 year old host niece, runs up to me with her arms held above her head squeaking “Yekkati ma!” (Pick me up!). She will only properly greet or start talking to me once I lift her up and settle her on one hip. I’ve asked her many times if she can walk by herself, but every time she answers with a cheery “Nope, I lost my shoes!” or even just “Nope, not today!” I carry her around the house until she allows me to put her back on the ground and then make my way into the living room to greet the rest of the family.
The living room is where I spend many of my evenings, hanging out and laughing with the various Sarr kids. Pauline, a slightly quiet but adorable 9-year-old, does her homework and draws pictures sprawled out on a mat on the floor. Saliou and Ramatoutou get into mischief and play make-believe games that would seem strange in the states but are completely normal here, like pretending to kill the Tabaski sheep or bargaining at a made-up market stall. Even my older host sisters, who range in age from 19 to 26 years old, often act like children, making up dances to popular Senegalese and American songs and commenting on TV shows in funny accents. It’s these evenings, everyone laughing and just being together, that I most feel like a real part of my host family – just another one of the Sarr children.
The rickety Ndiaga Ndiaye bus finally pulls into its destination, all of the preschoolers still singing despite many more abrupt stops and other such anxiety-inducing traffic maneuvers. The maitresse sitting next to me stops her tambourine for a moment and looks over at me to sigh, “Alhamdoullilah.” Thanks to God, all of the children arrived safely. I agree, thinking, What would Senegal be without them?
You walk down a road, equal parts paved and sand, fine-grained brown intermixing with roughly hewn grey. Meandering through the morning fog, you hear foam speckled silver, the ocean’s mumbles, carried near. A little ruffle through your hair, a whisper by your ear, sprinkled with intermittent points of stillness - an interplay of sound and silence. You amble on with nary a care. Ah, wait. You pull out your matte black plastic lifeline, and notice the four extra white contours, making it four times two, and a blinding reminder of your inability to read time while near the cusp of consciousness. You whisk away, a tip tapping of feet by the beach, motes of sand fluttering confusedly by your foot’s breach, as you bid a ‘fare thee well’ to the still, standing, mocking wind spelling out with just a hint of a smirk, “SO LONG, STUPID.” You decide to throw away the yogurt you were eating on account of this delusion. Pity.
Stained cobalt on rusty white: it’s a lumbering beast; maws wide with an invitation for a seat untaken. Much more preferable to standing, you decide as you clamber in, and much more disappointing when another wanderer sidles onto it instead. You give your own personal Charon (he says his name is Cageman) some change to ferry you through the Styx, hoping to go without any incident or a proverbial leak of the ship. Well, bus rather. It lumbers to life, slowly, agonizingly, like a migraine. The throng of people presses in, a rhythmic jostling, leaving your extremities aching. You puzzle on the passing sight of a sheep, off white going on patchy brown, nibbling on a banana peel. You remember bananas: an ongoing staple of your diet, a daily breakfast habit, a cure to diarrhea.
You slip into the familiar routine, peering through the broken window, bits and pieces of scenery flashing by, light grey melding into green, a blear to your insensate senses. You feel a tap, a hesitant beat by an amateurish drummer aiming for a platinum solo, with grandiose aims to create a marvel. You realign your thoughts as you realize it’s just another fellow passenger, taking his own journey through the dark waters of this river Styx, surrounded by remorseless multicolored sharks ready to run you over. Yet, you trust your Charon to lead you through, swerving his automobile ferry to and fro, as the passenger trusts you himself, hoping you’ll pass his change and serve him well. You acquiesce with the wishes of your comrade in arms, and then melt back into another daydream, filled with the movement of strings and a symphony of sounds. You hum.
It’s a routine, this voyage of yours, a recurring dream within a dream world. Each color, a brighter tempo, every object, filled with intentions. An undercurrent of sheer life runs through the world’s veins. Beauty building on majesty, juxtaposed against the vestiges of nature and time on the various crumbling buildings nearby. Dark hints of times gone by, mixed with golden memories enduring inside.
You see a puzzling structure whizzing by, corroded yellow sun over tarnished murky blue ocean, sternly beckoning with a little 4 scribbled within. Obligatory may ma watch’s echo, a thrumming of footsteps follow. A little hesitancy is all that it takes to transform that into a may ko! The yellow herald beckons with an angular grin.
Pause. Not your time yet. You let it be.
You sway your head back and forth, imagining yourself to be the conductor of your very own orchestra. A note played by the creaking seats, a dazzling accompaniment of phone beeps, a solo by a saxophone -- never mind, merely a car horn. A man rattles Cageman’s abode, a tarnished grey hive comb, an audible sigh drifting over as another passenger stumbles over. There’s an arm, waving threateningly, here’s a leg wanting to trip you eagerly. Another individual slithers through two rather abundant derrieres, clawing toward his goal. You lean back and let your mind free.
The bus travels, chugging forth, like the little engine that could, at times inching to a point of collapse, but pulling through steadfast. It’s a routine, this travel of yours, filled with a unique life of its own. As you lean forward a bit more, you notice: Caramel brown followed with woody grey. My, oh my, that horse is awfully close, you decide.
The wind is particularly strong today. I’m seated in the third row from behind, window open, directly across from the man in the cage. He’s the most popular man in the bus: every person who enters hands him change in one of the cage’s metal openings, he responds in a different metal opening with a pass.
I’m lucky I got this seat; it was a cutthroat battle just getting here. In fact, a seat may be the most coveted piece of land on one of the many rusty TATA busses that roam Dakar’s network of modern highways and sandy alleyways. To get here, I performed several feats of flexibility I didn’t even know I had. Sidestepping a rather loquacious man with a penchant for speaking with his hands, I then had to avoid the path of the external ticket inspector maneuvering his way through the one-person aisle in the middle of the bus. The not-at-all elegant tango on the aisle used to perplex me. This time it’s smooth.
There’s a woman seated directly in front of me. She’s real chatty. From what I can pick up with my still improving Wolof, she’s taking the bus to the market in order to sell whatever is in the bag placed on the self-made shelf above her. Now the constant stop and go of the bus plays the part of the rocking chair, lulling me to sleep with the clearly worn-out brakes and rusty suspension.
I’m awakened by a sharp turn. Narrowly avoiding the horsecart to its right, our bus moves with the nimbleness of a sedan and the clatter of a tractor. My attention turns toward the window. It clearly hasn’t been washed in quite a while; yet, for its intended purpose, it suffices. The landscape changes with the rate of motion of our bus, an interdependency that leads my mind down many competing streams of thought.
And that’s when I notice the Wu-tell stamp. A minuscule company mark is a common sight on windows, yet this one is jarring nonetheless. I’m a little surprised it took me this long to notice it; it hides in the foreground, changing appearance with the bus’s accumulation of miles, and therefore dust and scratches. Yet here it is, both scarred and unscathed.
I look to the window accompanying the row in front of me. The rambling jaykat lady is still sitting there, going on about something or another. And I see the Wu-tell stamp on the window adjacent to her seat. And so I look at the row behind me, and I look ahead, and I look across the bus. All the windows are produced by the same company, and they exist in a varied spectrum of condition, but they all display the mark.
I’m a little disillusioned; the world appears as one grating cacophony of sight and sound and smell. An over-thinking induced vertigo keeps my brain occupied until I see the yellow, angled “Arret mini-bus” sign in front of my stop. I jostle my way out of the deftly driven metal contraption before the bus door closes, keeping mind of both my possessions and the location of my steps.
I enter the outside world, a perspective untainted by the mark. As I walk down the side of the busy highway, I manage to avoid all manner of jagged rocks that mar the otherwise renovated and modern autoroute. Busses, cars, motorcycles, and horsecarts all pass by, no longer a curiosity, but a fact of everyday life. With every vehicle that passes by, I can’t help but think of the mark, of what I don’t notice but should, and of what affects my perspective without me even detecting it. It’s quite jarring; you don’t expect your “reality” to be layered with so many filters. Tainted fidelity can be as damaging as a lie...
My toe stubs a rock, jolting me out of my pseudo-philosophical state and bringing me back to reality. I march on into the wind with a renewed purpose: find the next Wu-tell.
“Zik FM… Maravillosa… oh oh oh oh Senegal, Senegal, oh Senegal… woo!... Zik FM!” goes my favorite radio jingle as I step onto the Number 47 bus outside the YMCA, where I have just finished work. More accurately, this is how my brain interprets the jingle (I highly doubt that it actually includes the Spanish word “maravillosa,” considering that this is a Francophone country, but no matter). I nudge my way past a stately Senegalese woman, in full boubou and headscarf (the traditional Senegalese outfit), and a couple of young men texting on phones, and pull my 200 CFA coin out of my front jeans pocket. “Medina,” I tell the ticket-seller from behind the bars of his booth. He passes over my ticket in return for the coin; I mutter a quick “Jerrijef” (“thank you”) and feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn as an elderly gentleman stands up to disembark, gesturing for me to take his now-empty seat. I gratefully accept.
Now that I’ve secured a seat, I wonder how to spend the forty-or-so-minute ride down to Medina. I have some Wolof flashcards in my pocket… “jéem, try,” “soppi, change” … I finish them, then stare out the window as we race down Bourgiba Avenue. We pass several neighborhoods – Amitié 1 and 2, Baobab, Liberte 2 – and as I stare out at the mishmash of apartments, butiks (general stores), dirt roads, mosque spires, and street vendors, I’m struck as always at how familiar it all seems. Though I’ve never set foot in any of these areas, they look the same as those neighborhoods I do know – Yoff, Parcelles Assainies, Niary Tally. Going inside the butiks, frequenting the twisting streets, I know too that I’d find the same warmth, because I’d find the same people: vendors who, upon learning we shared a first or last name, would declare me a friend and offer me free Café Touba or beignets; men gathered around benches making attaya; women who’d guide me to a bus stop, make sure I found my way safely home. A quiet epiphany: anywhere people live is a home.
A harried-looking young mother boards the bus, a baby on her back and a toddler in tow. The 47’s limited seats are long gone, but seeing my empty lap, the mom picks her child up and – after I nod in affirmation – plops it down onto my knees. I hold the kid as we continue down Bourgiba, thinking of the students I just left at the YMCA. I taught CP, CE2, and CM1 classes today (2nd, 4th, and 5th grades) – CP and CM1 were delightful as ever, CE2 little scoundrels (they’re on a mission to destroy my vocal cords). And at the classes’ 11 o’clock snack break, I had a conversation with the other elementary school teachers about Africa’s political and economic problems. Somehow it devolved into discussion of the pre-colonial Malian and Soso Empires, a debate over the factuality of the myths surrounding Mandinka ruler Sundiata Keita – and for the first time, I understood and participated in it all, at full French speed!
A billboard passes: Waly Seck (one of my favorite Senegalese singers), playing at the Grand Theatre National! I crane my neck to see the date – ah, it’s two months old. Typical. The 47 now passes a huge Citydia supermarket. I still feel ambivalent about the presence of these giant stores, which feel to me a rude Western attempt to commercialize and dehumanize Senegal’s centuries-old market system. Though supermarkets are certainly faster than navigating market stalls, chatting and bargaining with vendors, when faced with the choice of purchasing my daily products from an impersonal supermarket or from my friend Ibrahima (the owner of the butik outside my house), I know which I prefer. I think briefly on the growing popularity of farmer’s markets in the U.S., amused at the all-powerful America’s growing return to the Senegalese market model – it’s like we’ve been to the extreme of mass-production and commercialized “development” and now want to come back to purer, local goods and interactions. I don’t wish that struggle on Senegal, for Ibrahima and the other vendors to lose their jobs to these commercial behemoths until people finally realize that efficiency is no substitute for humanity.
My brain runs through the rest of the day’s events… visit the tailor to pick up my newly-finished boubou, get to the program house early for an Arabic lesson with Paul, back home to eat and relax with my family in the TV room, continue the book I’m currently reading (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel) before bed. I mentally add an “Inshallah” (“If God wills it” in Arabic) after my list, as any assertion about the future is qualified in Senegal – a reminder that the day is not set in stone, that my plans will likely change and that I cannot control the future; that particular ability belongs to a power higher than me. Though coming from a culture where time is monetized and quantified and dealt to the point where we assume we do control it, I’m learning to be okay with the less-ordered, less-controlled pace of Senegalese life – a relaxation which I hope to retain upon my return to the States.
Shouts and a blaring horn suddenly interrupt my train of thought: making our way around the Guiltapée roundabout, a horse charet has barely missed colliding with a Number 4 bus just in front of us. Luckily, no damage to either party has ensued; we continue on our way. I smile at how foreign these problems would seem in my sleepy California hometown, where horses have not shared streets with buses in many years.
A line from a Carlou D song pops into my head: “Fii mooy Senegal…” This is Senegal.
And I couldn’t be happier.