"It's so green," the first words out of my mouth breathed to Israel, the Nigerian sitting next to me, as we touched down in Minneapolis. He'd watched my fidgety attempts to maintain conversation since we left JFK and smiled knowing what it's like to leave a place so different and come home after so long.
I'm backing into my third week being home. I'm slowly leaving one life for another and letting go of what I don't need to be here. More than anything I feel dizzy with the effort of switching between different realities. What was true there isn't here. What came hard there is easy here, but yet somehow infinitely more complicated. But I'm here maangi fii rekk alhumdulilah. I was having trouble with color for awhile and went to the greenhouse the other day and found comfort in the vibrant garden flowers. The green here is brillant. So much rain has left this area amass in dark green trees and grass. But my eyes keep seeking the bright African tissu and coming up with lots of pale. I feasted on a pair of my brother's sunglasses with orange lens and I felt I'd made up for some of the lost color.
But really when it comes down to it the things that I expected to marvel at, I'm not, and the things I expected to be easy, are hard. I walked into Wal-Mart without a whole lot of fanfare. I've heard of people coming back from Africa and standing startled in an aisle trying to fathom so many choices. But for some reason I didn't have that experience. It's America. We are the land of where that's all we do is choose. What's harder is knowing how to be with people. It's so easy to slip into old roles, but breaking out of them is a challenge. It's hard feeling like I left pieces of me in Senegal, parts of me I never draw on being here. And just the transition from leaving one life behind and trying to start a new one -- now I'm on to the The Next Step but where do I go from here?
In the meantime, just trying to take pleasure in the small things, which is what brought me around to loving Senegal, and I know it can work for being home. I spent the weekend by the lake with my family kayaking, roasting marshmallows, sitting in lawn chairs, taking four-wheeler rides in the country, getting tipsy on beer, watching fireworks, and trying trying to take in the quiet of South Dakota. There were moments in Dakar where I would have given anything for a weekend of South Dakota solitude and now that it's here it's my inside that can't keep still.
Riding my brother's Harley.
South Dakota skies. This is enough to ground me, at least for a moment.
In a world I'd only slipped into here and there during my stay in Senegal, I'd suddenly became apart of it, even if only for a few moments on a Sunday afternoon, it was my glimpse at the life of a Senegalese woman. With the help of the women in my family -- my host sisters, Lala and Matou, maman and the maid Khady -- I prepared my first plate of ceebujen. There are many dishes in Senegal, but ceebujen (fish and rice and oh so much more) is the main one that comes to mind and considered the national plat. Every student who comes through Senegal eats their fair share -- and some of us have come to love it while others are content to never eat it again. It's definitely become my soul food and I'll miss it when I'm gone.
Someday I'll write an ode to ceebujen, but today I'm too emotional as is thinking of leaving Senegal. I fly late tonight, early this morning. My family here is planning my send off and my family at home is awaiting my arrival, it's the 17 hours in between, switching between the two worlds, doing it alone, I haven't been alone since I left for Senegal. And now somewhere between these two continents I will be forever stretched no matterà quelle côté. That's my pleasure and my burden, it just doesn't make the comings and goings very easy.
Senegal has seeped into every part of my life it's hard to know how to unweave it, how to extract myself, and come home. I see myself at home with my family, having coffee with friends, reveling in the conveniences of America and not being stared at, eating burritos and ice cream and sushi. All this I see and taste and feel, yet it still all feels unreal that in a matter of eight hours I can quitte Dakar, the doors will open, and I can be in America -- taf-taf.
Saturday night, my last in Dakar, I finally went to see Youssou N'dour. He's Senegal's most famous celebrity and singer, revered with the top African musicians, has toured everywhere, released plusiers best-selling albums, and when he's at home he plays every weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) at his Club Thiossane (meaning roots in wolof) in Amities 2 in Dakar. I'd found a CD of his at the library before I came to Senegal. I remember thinking he had an amazing voice, but I couldn't really get into his music. Now after hearing it played in my ear in so many taxis and dancing to it at Dakar night clubs it 's comfort food.
The thing about Youssou N'dour is he spearheaded a whole genre of popular music in Senegal, so now if you're not hearing his music, you're hearing a pretty good rip off of it. His music also fits hand-in-hand with a particular style of dance here called mbalax,which arguably Senegalese could mbalax to anything it doesn't necessarily have to be Youssou N'Dour or anyone like him. It's a dance mostly done with the knees and the occasional hip bump thrown in there to varying degrees depending on if you're male or female.
Unfortunately I'd waited until my last weekend to see him because I would love to go back for more nights at his club or even catching him at the various other places he plays around Senegal. He's an incredible performer and I did my best to sway and dance and mbalax with the best of them just until 4 a.m. and I barely walked out of the club.
There's something about setting out on the open road that's liberating -- the starting anew, the getting out, the leaving well what's left behind. Though lately I've been more in the mindset of frequenting my old haunts, sticking with the familiar, and above all not stepping foot out of Dakar -- my dominion, mon fief. But this weekend we took to the road for Saint Louis for the annual (inshallah -- when god wills it) jazz fest. I've spoken of Saint Louis before, at the northern tip of Senegal where river meets ocean and the Mauritanian border lurks over the next bend. It was the capital of West Africa before Dakar, so the old colonial architecture still stands, making a beautiful and appropriate backdrop for listening to good music and being with friends.
Saint Louis has a bit of a complicated geography as the center of the city is an island divided by a fork in the river. As you cross over the first bridge onto the island you find the centre ville and all its UNESCO-protected colonial architecture. Once you leave and cross over the bridge on the other side you'll end up on the "tongue" or the Langue de Berberie and this is where you drive through the fishing areas, the women drying and dicing fish, the pirogues (boats) in various forms of construction lining the road running alongside the river. So basically one side of the Langue is river and the other is ocean, so once at the tongue's end the two merge in a heep of sand erosion and beached jelly fish and other sea fish which can't survive the fresh water.
The side of the Langue with the ocean is an incredible stretch of sandy beach and waves that just keep coming and folding and unfolding. Some of my favorite visits to Saint Louis have been to this beach and just walking with no end in sight.
We rented out the top of the Harmattan, a hotel run by an old spinster French woman named Rene. She could pass for an Elizabeth Taylor in her appearance. Her walls are crowded with photos of her on horses and sensual sketches of her in her younger days, and she had pets in varying degrees of disguise -- cats, parrots, dogs, horses, birds. She let half her apartment since all the hotel rooms we're already occupied by the time we got in. It was our luck since it's a beautiful apartment comfortably decorated leaving plenty of nooks to read and write plus it gave us the freedom to spread out our own meals and come and go as if it were our weekend home.
We passed the evenings staying out late going in and out of various bars and clubs listening to a few moments of music and dancing a few songs just to leave and do the same at the next place. I got to reconnect with my Mauritanian friends (peace corps!) almost getting stepped on by a skinny Senegalese man on stilts kicking my chair to move so he could dance the mbalax. But at least getting the chance to share a beer with those who appreciate Gazelle far too much and especially staring into a Desperado trying to work through questions of happiness with Caleb.
And especially the short, stolen moments with Samba trying to figure out how this person so cleverly and quickly came into my life. Sitting by the river, taking pictures of the bridge, listening to good acoustic music, feeling safe and charmed and right. Taking a just before sunset walk on that long stretch of beach I love throwing stories and explanations into the windy waves and jumping over bits of jelly fish. And our final day, the surprise bike ride around the island -- when did I bike last...? Maybe last summer. But it's true about never forgetting how.
Since I started the posts on Mauritanian a lot has gone on in Senegal that I have yet to write. Last Wednesday I finished my program here, capping it with my first 10 page research paper in French. The end of the semester here is one of the most intense moments of our program with the stress of finals and the added pressure of wanting to spend as much time with the American friends who are leaving and getting in final dinners with our host families. And then just contemplating what it's going to be like to go home after an experience like this and figuring out what Senegal means. Saying goodbye is difficult under any circumstance, but especially, for me, saying goodbye to a place that is so integrated into my life that I have a hard time imagining it not there. The day that I wake up without a Senegal to step out into is going to be a very difficult one even as it's combined with seeing my brothers and my mom and my dad and my good friends who've waited patiently for me to come home. This is why I've been so hesitant to leave. So I'm staying on for another few weeks. I don't know what I intend to accomplish except to try to prepare myself to leave and to get in a few more moments with this place and the people who've become apart of it for me.
One day last month having lunch Chez Astou in the Medina.
Trying to get the taxi started, but at least we're in Senegal again.
I want to say this about our voyage: I've never decided to set out like that, to discover a country on my own, to go without a plan. All of my previous trips have been with a purpose, never to just go on a whim, with no itinerary in mind. We were equipped with a few changes of clothes and an outdated West Africa Lonely Planet. En plus, we were two girls from Senegal making the trek alone, making it after a sejour of seven months in Senegal lending to our ability to dig deeper than just the topsoil of the place and really try to see it out -- within the rights of our limitations in how far you can really know in 10 days. We could shed certain cliches like traveling in a taxi brousse or the feeling of "being in Africa" or of buying a cheesy African souvenirs to take home. Further, we found ourselves embraced constantly by a Senegalese world, one in which we never would have discovered had we set foot in Mauritania cold without a Senegal under our belt. We found Wolof and names we knew to pronounce and family friends who aided and directed and talked to us along the way -- it was a a home away from home transporting us from familiar to new and back again.
And Tsilat was a love. The way we learned to mold ourselves to each other. You don't have tissue but I do. Where's my chapstick, here use mine. Sitting half on each other laps four deep in a backseat made for three of a small Mercedes and scheming when to best collectively shift so the dozing butt cheek could tingle to life again. The long talks in the desert staring out at the full moon lit dunes or entertaining ourselves with stories of our childhood, our adulthood, and where we go from here sitting in a car full of strangers who don't speak English and the strange feeling you get when just release something so private and hope that your assumption that no one speaks English is true.
And we came home. Back to Dakar. What a feeling to know the road, the buildings, the layout, the food, to remember what we love, what we hate, and to finally finally fall into the uncomfortable lumpy beds at our host family's house and know that it's ours, it's the familiar, and that we made it. Somehow, my god, Senegal we're back.
I don't know how long we drove. I fell asleep with Tsilat untying my braids. When I woke up, she told me how the driver kept swerving to make sure people we're awake and would hit things near a sleeping person and was arguing loudly with the women in the backseat. I must have escaped his attention.
We stopped sometime with the driver pulling fastly onto the side of the road and he killed the car in front of a small square cement building and everyone tumbled out. Tsilat and I didn't really know what was happening and we asked a man getting out who said "The driver is tired and he wants to sleep."
At this point we were more angry than scared, but still powerless in our situation. We were on the side of a long road with only white sand desert on either side. I didn't have service on my phone and I didn't feel like I had the backing of the other passengers to organize a coup on the driver and demand he continue driving.
Since we were slow at getting out of the car, once we walked into the small, one story cement building where we were staying the night, everyone had already grabbed a foam mat on the floor. We were thrown a dirty pillow and pointed to the floor. Tsilat has her "netela" or scarf that she takes everywhere when she travels. Before she leaves she douches it in perfume so it always hints at the smell of home and familiarity. It was our one source of comfort this night as the cheap walls of this damned structure didn't keep out the coldness of the night. As the ants made their way up my pant legs and the back of my shirt and Tsilat and I huddled on the floor together trying to figure out how in the world we're going to be able to sleep.
The driver's alarm went off once and I thought for sure we must be going now. But he shut it off and still we didn't budge. By dawn, the men woke and went outside to pray, then came in and began making tea. The only thing I could think is, "No not now. Not tea." And, "how many rounds are they going to do?" as I watched the gas burner which was slowly running out of fuel and had only the tinest of flame attempt to boil a pot of water. They offered it to us and Tsilat and I both shook our head in one same movement not even wanting to associate this experience with the good memories of Mauritanian tea.
Finally, they took only two rounds and the door swung open to reveal sun and the flat whiteness of the land surrounding us. We squeezed again into the car our fumes stifling, our anger hurting us, and that's when we got a flat tire. Again, out of the car, sitting on a pile of sand calculating what we'll say to the taximan once we finally reach Nouakchott. Tsilat in her fierceness asking me how do you say "liar" in french?" and wishing to hurle at the driver, "tu connais 'fuck you!'?"
And when we arrived in Nouakchott less than two hours later it didn't make any sense why we'd passed the night on the road if we were this close. Before the car even stopped, we were out, clutching for a bags, and leaving, walking away, getting out, finding our own way, jumping in a green Mercedes taxi. Chez Molly. We were going home. We were safe.
Molly heard our taxi when it pulled up. She came down her long stairs and we fell into her relieved and full of our scary tale. We made coffee from the US, ate frosted flakes she'd some how managed to acquire in Mauritania, and we relived, we let it go, lucky to be unharmed.
I'm a student studying language and culture in Senegal, West Africa. South Dakota is the place I'll always call home. I finished my journalism degree and now I'm off to Senegal to get a degree in French.