Upon joining Peace Corps, I set a goal for myself. If I change one person’s life in my two years in Senegal, my time here has been worth it. What a surprise I got at my going-away party, when hundreds of people showed up to speak about what I have meant to them. It’s not every day our expectations are exceeded hundreds of times over. Machallah I am blessed.
This was not a work event. This was not a training. This was just my way of saying goodbye to my friends and family.
This day, from beginning, to end, and the days surrounding the event… this was the best experience in my whole Peace Corps career. This was a culmination of all the ‘work’ I had done throughout my life in Senegal. It was my final program, my last ‘hurrah’ and the amount of people who attended proved to me that my two years in this village had been more than worth it! It reaffirmed everything I had done and showed me exactly how many people cared and appreciated me and my work – hundreds. It also made it easier to break the truth to people about my inevitable depart because, instead of telling people, ‘I am leaving soon, my contract is over,’ I would then add onto that the fact that I was to have a party in order to say goodbye to everyone. The reactions were classic: “I am going home soon”…”No!” (disappointment)…”But I’m having a goodbye party”…”Oh! Wonderful, we will be there, inshallah!” (No longer disappointed). It also kept me quite busy in the days leading up to the party because, it turns out, there’s a lot that goes into these events. I wanted to have dancing, theater, and thiossane (culture exposition). my impression, in attending previous celebrations was that these were activities that the kids already had together and they could just pull out of their pockets, but it turned out to be something we had to start from scratch.
“If you want to do theater or dance at all, Coumba, you need my help,” said Moussa Coumba. “And you should know that there’s a lot of preparation that needs to go into this, so I hope you’re prepared. You also should have really thought about this ahead of time, there may not be enough time to put it all together,” he warned. I had myself a right-hand man. We began practices every afternoon with the kids for the dance performance and for the theater skit, with intermittent interruptions due to weddings and people traveling to farm in the wallo (see previous post).
This whole idea started off humble and small. I thought maybe I would have a nice party with my family and friends in our house. I purchased a sheep from my mother months ago and she had helped me raise it and take care of it. It was now going to be our lunch. When I began thinking of who I wanted at the party and which of them would be upset if I did not include them, and all of that, I realized that I actually had a lot of friends. And I actually wanted all of them to be there in order to see them before I left. Most of these friends had become more than just acquaintances… they were true friends. Many of them, I had spent the night at their house, or had gone to their wedding, or had been there for the birth of their child or death of their mother. These are many things I cannot say about most of my American friends.
Thillo, my sister-in-law and I
The scale of the event changed dramatically with some news from abroad: Maxi Krezy was returning to Senegal (or so he said, casually via Facebook Messenger) I had been in touch with my friend Maxi Krezy on and off since he had left for the U.S. to work on his new album and memoire. He was supposed to have come to the Pete English Day back in April (or was it May?), but was unable to when the date coincided with the date he was slated to leave for the states. He had been there ever since, but said he would be home before I left for the U.S. I didn’t buy it though. As time got closer to my Close of Service date, I really began to doubt the validity of this claim. I didn’t doubt his intentions though. He asked me about the details of my party; at that point still in the small in-my-house stages, but when he said he would be taking part in it, that would change everything. If Maxi Krezy, world-renouned Senegalese rapper, one of the spearheads of African rap in the world today, says he is coming to a party, you can bet he’s going to step things up. I was now preparing for a concert with a discussion panel prior to the show discussing my chosen topic: female education, as we had discussed back in April.
Now time to step it up…
- Rent speakers
- Find DJ – luckily a friend of Maxi Krezy is a nearby DJ and immediately showed up to help, bringing all his equipment with him.
- Procure shade structure
- Procure chairs – from both the mayor’s office and the Qur’anic students
- Approval by Mayor of both Galoya and Mbolo Birane
- Clearance by Police
- Invite everyone who’s phone numbers I had
- Hold a Radio show
Sure enough, as promised, the day before the fété, Maxi Krezy showed up. Having had electrical difficulties that prior Monday at the radio station, we decided to go back to the radio that day. Better late than never. We (me, Maxi, DJ Fada, and Mr. Niang- an amazing counterpart in Thilambol) went to the radio station to announce the event. We announced to the world that Coumba Demba will be leaving. I was able to inform everyone about the event and express my gratitude towards everyone who has taken me into their family, as their friend, under their wing; taught me everything from, how to eat, how to milk a cow, to how to predict sand storms.
The day of the fete was perfect. I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, of course, but so was everyone else. They all really stepped it up, running to the neighbors to enlist more help with the cooking. My sisters made begniets and popcorn outside my room while my brothers took the sheep out back and slaughtered him, butchering him and bringing the meat to the group of mothers/neighbors/and friends who were working on the job of cooking the lunch. Alicia, my sitemate/sister/twin/best friend (pictured above) was my saving grace of the day as well, as she helped me keep my head on straight and even helped serve lunch! She was also the photographer.
The kids took the charett (horse-drawn cart) to Mbolo Birane to get the chairs and another group arrived at the house to get the shade structure and set it up. Ropes were procured to make crowd barriers. The village bustled with excitement. (And this was all happening on a Thursday, not even a weekend). Guests arrived from Ndioum, Aire Lao, and neighboring villages and spent the day.
After the DELICIOUS meat-filled lunch, we began our procession to the school. Guests began to arrive from as far as Boke Diawe, Thilogne. Important people arrived from the mayor’s office.
The Eaux et foret (forestry officer) Abou Ly, pictured above, right, showed up, (among countless other important people). He was one of the people I have worked with in all of my agroforestry-related projects and is integral in much of our work here. I was honored that he came, as well as Madame l’mayor, Nafi Kane, who was even so kind as to bring me a gift of beautiful fabric!
Slowly, in ‘African time’, the music began to play and the village trickled in. After multiple suggestions and coaxing, I finally had to get decisive and say: “njehen! Puddorden joni joni!” Let’s go! We are starting right now! And it began!
I started it off with a speech to explain why I had brought everyone together on this day: “Today is for you. In these last two years, you have given me everything. I have gained a mother, a father, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, even children and grandparents. Today, I give to you in appreciation for all you have done for me and given to me and taught me. I arrived here as Dana: shy, unaware, unable to speak or tie my own head wrap. But today, I leave as Coumba Demba Thiam: strong, confident, and able to accomplish even the most difficult busumbura stitch in Senegalese needlepoint. Now I must leave so that I can return, successfully employed, so that I can make you all proud…”
When finished, I ducked inside the classroom to change into my next outfit, having promised myself that I wouldn’t get emotional in front of people. Speeches followed while I was in the classroom working to organize the people dressed in traditional wear and the theater performers. The speeches were an opportunity for everyone to talk about how they know me, our relationships, how we have worked together, reflecting on things I’ve done, things I’ve said, things I stand for, etc. Then we began the conference where Maxi Krezy spoke about women’s education and the importance of keeping girls in school, an issue of which I have dedicated much of my service towards, as many of you know after donating to my Michelle Sylvester Scholarships (THANK YOU). This is an issue that I had previously discussed with him, an issue of which I feel quite passionately. I knew, coming from him, it would hold that much more weight.
After many others had voiced their aggreance on the subject, it was time for the cultural display, or, thiossane (pronounced ‘cho san’) where all of us dressed in traditional wear paraded onto the stage. I had not informed anyone of the fact that I would be participating in this core event. I insisted on coming out last. The reaction was unparalleled. The crowd lost it. Even Alicia and my guests had had no idea of my plan.
As we, the thiossane participants, danced to one Baaba Mal song after the other, my host mother Kadja broke through the crowd and danced towards me! I was beaming, and my joy was reflected on her face.
We danced for what seemed like hours, many people coming up and joining in to show their excitement and shared happiness. Then came the theater performance. I played the mother with two children who she hopes to enroll in elementary school that year. Another family is in the same situation but decides, only after persistent begging, to enroll one child in school. That child, due to pressures at home, drops out before taking her exams, and the family struggles to make ends meet. Our children, however, succeed in their exams and get scholarships to study in America, showing how hard work and studying pays off. Of course there are a lot of jokes (I play an illiterate woman with no idea what the words ‘surprise’ or ‘double-lined’ mean) and an obscene amount of scene changes. It was all very funny.
Then for the rap! Every aspiring rapper had a chance to take the stage. Each was allowed one song. The thing about rap in this country is that it didn’t really start to take hold until after American rap had been big for years. American rap kind of tends to focus on topics such as sex, drugs, partying, drinking… you know what I mean. The movement here, however, has had a chance to watch, from an outsider’s perspective, the effect that kind of music has on the youth of America and the kind of image it portrays for African Americans. The rap and hip hop movement in Senegal (and I can see the trends expanding to many other African countries through popular music videos and songs passed around via bluetooth’ing) has taken a stand by using rap and hip hop for positive, developmental purposes. This has been mobilized by those like Maxi Krezy and many of the other major musical artists and development agents. Lyrics are now generally focused on topics of social mobilization towards development and aiming the energy of the youth towards building a better nation. I never used to like rap and hip hop music, but since I have met Maxi Krezy and begun to listen to (and be able to understand) the lyrics of many of the local artists, I have found a new respect for the genre and for the musicians of this country as well. Music has such a powerful influence over the youth of today. It’s so inspiring to have musicians who really care about the culture of today and are working to improve the society of tomorrow, through youth and music.
About 7 local rappers performed their songs. Then Maxi took the stage and did what he does best. It was fantastic. By the end of the night, the entire schoolyard was packed with people all the way to the walls. People were arriving by charrett even after we had ended the show (we ended relatively early so as not to disturb those in the village) and many of the out-of-town guests spent the night at friends’ houses in the village. It was an amazing day/night. One of those moments that make you feel alive and remind you that all the difficulties getting to this point were all worth it. No event is perfect, but from my view, this one was. It was everything I could have asked for. That goes for the entire two years I spent here. My time spent in Mbolo Aly Sidy was perfect. The ups and downs made it real. This place and the people have changed my life forever and will forever be a part of it.