Driving on the National Highway. Small villages here and there, people walking, carrying water here and there, young boys barefoot pushing circles of wire with a stick, running, running, running. A bus passes too close, goats peer towards the road, a sheapard herds his cows across the road, walking, walking, walking. Honk at the horse-drawn charrett oblivious to cars on the road, swerve to avoid the pothole, driving, driving, driving. Back door man taps a coin on the metal roof of the mini bus, crammed with too many people. The car slows to a stop. Hassle your way out from between an old man and the woman with the baby that’s been kicking you for the past 2 hours. No one moves very much, watching you struggle to grab your bag. Jump off. Free at last. The back door man taps the coin again, tap tap tap, and the car zooms away.
“Coumba! Where were you?”
“You arrived safely?”
I see the tree. The tree that signals the turn to my house. The tree that welcomes me home. A welcome sight, that Acacia.
Walk to the red door past our boutique.
Welcome to our home. This is the Thiam House. My Baaba (father) is the Village Chief. Any wanderer/lost hearder/broken down car owner who happens upon Mbolo Aly Sidy is directed here. They either stay here or are provided accommodations thenceforth in a neighbor’s house.
Walking into the compound, to your left is our boutique, a door opening to the road and one into the compound. Minimally stocked, door open only when Baaba Mamadou is inside selling bread in the morning or upon request to purchase something. On the right is our grain grinding machine that pounds millet, sorghum, and rice to make Senegalese cous cous, called lecciri. Every time it is turned on the power in the whole house flickers. Past the machine is the ‘kitchen’ space – a shaded platform where the cooking pot sits. During the day, cooking pots, bowls, fish, bags of spices, and little stools fill the space. It is the social area for the women because more than one work together to cook at any given time.
Next to the boutique is Baaba Mamadou’s house. He is the younger brother of Baaba Hamath (my Baaba and Village Chief). His house contains two rooms and an outer enclosed area. Two shaded bamboo beds sit on either side of the door. My room is attached to this house. The outside shade structure, held up by logs, is used to store animal feed on top and an occasional plate of beans or drying grain. The lizards skitter, skitter, skitter across it, leaves and bits of dirt falling on your head.
Baaba Mamadou has one wife, Maymuna, a strong woman with a dark face but lights in her eyes and a musical laughter. She has taken me in as her own and I confide in her, gossip with her, cook with her. She knows when I’m not feeling well and when I pretended to eat dinner because I didn’t like it, and she sneaks me a cup of sweet milk and cous cous. She is the one who laughs at me the most, and because of her compassion and good-natured persona, she never judges or gets irritated with me. She has a photo of her eldest son above their bed. He passed away 2 years ago. “How?” “He was just done, finished.” He was 24. They have a son Ediman who studies the Koran in a different village, Musa who is quiet, in charge of the charrett and three donkeys have become his soulmates and his personality reflects their calm complacency. Djiby, in his last year of high school, has moved out of the house to another relative’s closer to his school and to be able to focus better. He dedicates all of his free time to his studies and his abilities in French, Spanish, and especially English reflect his determination.
Little Mamadou (around 11 yrs) studies the Koran in the early mornings, midday, and late at night. His free time, and the other Talibe boys as well, is spent going door to door humbly asking for rice and millet or out in the trees collecting firewood to sell. Farmata (or Chamin, she has two names) is about 8, has a lot of energy and a tendency to get very dirty. Still at the age where she doesn’t listen to directions well, she runs free, going to school sometimes.
My room is painted blue.
Little window. Mosquito net precariously attached to nails in the walls by bits of fabric. Bathroom attached. This is a problem. Any smells from the hole in the floor flow in and out of my room. Needless to say, lots of bleach and soap are used daily to keep the space clean and ‘fresh’. Air fresheners are much appreciated. A small patio outside my door makes for a perfect yoga space, however gets me many strange looks from passerby’s.
Outside my patio, the calf is tied to a tree. It stands there, standing, standing, standing, all day every day. She eats leftover rice, cardboard mash, used green tea, anything put in front of it.
Across the courtyard from me, near the kitchen space is the house of Baaba Musa. Baaba Musa is not here, he works in Gabon. He has not been here for years. Every month, he sends money to his one wife and kids. This house has 4 rooms, two of which are used by his wife and kids, the others are given to the fourth wife of Baaba Hamath and a guest room.
Baaba Musa’s wife is Hawa, a very large and tall woman, professional lounger, she lays out her mat and lays on her side, sometimes conversing sometimes sleeping sometimes eating. Her children are Malik, in his last year of high school, he plans to attend the university next year and study science and medicine, but I don’t see him outside his room much. His sister, Aiisata Musa, is tall for her age, around 16, she has the body supermodels would die for. She walks with slow confidence, but when she talks, it seems her teeth cause her teenage self-consciousness. Ramata Musa, around 9, will soon be as tall as her sister and has the beginnings of the respectful womanly tendencies, but still battles inwardly in her childishness and eagerness to play.
Baaba Hamath’s house. L-shaped, with four bamboo beds rested on yellow water bidons in the middle under the sheet metal roof with hanging pieces of fabric to attach mosquito nets to at night. Steps lead to the cement patio area.
Baaba’s room is the farthest to the left near the water spigot and the other exit towards the community garden. To get to his room, first enter the carpeted lounge room, brushing the purple sheer curtain aside and taking off your shoes. The room is dark, the light from the back window blinding as you try to see who or what is in the room. Half of the walls are padded with cushions on the floor, the other side with dark wooden chairs with brown velour cushions. A TV sits in the corner where you entered. Previously, this was where friends and family would lounge and watch the news or the kids’ favorite French-dubbed Spanish soap opera “Sacrifice de Femme,” or as they call it: Anna Bella. The TV has since broken, so the kids sometimes sneak into Baaba’s room to watch his when he is out at the mosque. His room, behind another beautiful curtain has a huge bed, his TV, and a tile bathroom that I assume has a shower or some sort of running water access. He is what we call ‘Patron,’ or, very well off. He walks out of his room to go to the mosque in his starched dark green grand boubou (Senegalese men’s wear), embroidered intricately around the neckline in white and silver. Matching white hat perched on the back of his head. White, pointed-toe slip-on shoes. Cane, candy-striped in silver, glittering as he steps down the stairs, his clothes crinkle, crinkle, crinkle noisily. The other side of the L are three mother’s rooms. Nene Faty, Nene Kaja, and Nene Aiisata.
Nene Aiisata is the first and oldest wife. Her eyes convey sadness and kindness, but very deep pain. She is beautiful, green tattoo around her mouth and chin (typical of older-generation village women). She is the wise guardian, but recently has acquired a few bad infections on her hands and feet that have kept her from being able to cook or water her garden. She has been relegated to sleeping, either inside or out. People visit her at all times of the day and night to wish her well or pray for her. It hurts me to see her in such pain, but she is scared to wash her infections with water. She has one daughter: Ramata, around 17, in high school. Beautiful, she walks glides through the compound with confidence.
Nene Faty is the second wife, but acts with the dominance as if she were the first. Her eyes portray a sometimes condescending confidence, but she laughs with harmless sarcasm. She is the first to joke, and her smile reveals her green tattooed gums, teeth standing out white against the darkness. She has the oldest children: Pinna is married to Musa (the brother of my name-sake) and has two girls now: Aiisata Pinna and Faty Sy (named after her grandmother).
Aiisata Pinna lives in our compound and is spoiled rotten by Nene Faty with sweet milk and cookies and candy whenever she wants. Maymuna was recently married in a nearby compound but spends most of her time in our house. She just had a baby! One week after the birth will be the baptism and naming ceremony.
She is kind, but gets her sarcastic joking personality from her mother. She and I have the most fun teasing each other, calling each other eggs or ‘not well’. Nene Faty works at the Health Post in the village and is well-versed on health issues.
She has the largest, strongest hands that I have ever seen on a woman. She never tires of working or helping others. She is selfless and loving, only her eyelids conveying a slight sense of weariness. She waters her huge vegetable garden plots twice a day, morning and evening, walking back and forth from the garden to the house, bucket after bucket after bucket carried on her head. She sometimes arrives in the orchard while I’m watering to gather feed for the animals, which she takes responsibility for the care of, day and night. She is working from the time that I wake up to leave for my morning run until it gets dark. She has two children, the oldest was given to her by a family in the neighboring village: Kaja, or ‘Kaja Small One’, around 16 yrs old, goes to high school with Ramata. She has a bouncing personality, always quick and eager to respond to calls for errands or chores. She takes a huge responsibility in my Pulaar language learning and also in my understanding of family and cultural dynamics of Senegal. At first, she spoke so quickly all of the time that I thought our friendship would be hopeless because I could not hear a single word that came rushing out of her mouth, but I realize now her patience for when I completely miss an entire conversation, she takes the time to restate it all, 100x slower. Nene Kaja’s son Adima, 8 or 9 yrs old, studies the Koraan with Mamadou (Nene Maymuna’s son) in the mornings, afternoons, and nights. He sometimes is needed to help us in the orchard, but is very resistant to work and often wanders off. His big, radiant smile (just like his mothers), glints with cunning as he hides behind the fence when his mother calls for him to help her with the cows. Nene Kaja is the one I come to for help with my garden or information about the women’s groups, of which she is an integral part. She is the first to speak up about needs of the women or the village as a whole. She has a deep intelligence, even though she does not speak French (a sign of education) or Wolof (the national language), but it does not stop her from voicing the important needs of those around her who may be too meek to speak up.
Nene Djeynaba is the fourth wife. Baaba’s house only has three rooms for wives, so her room is the front room of Baaba Musa’s house. She is very skinny, the youngest of the wives of the house, and with the youngest child: Mamoudou (pronounced differently than Mamadou), 2 years old. He is babied by everyone in the compound, but his mother struggles with the unknowns of parenting. She lacks slightly in her cooking abilities, which in Senegal, is sometimes punishable by shunning or at least by chastising by the others. She is not included by the other wives, physically and emotionally. She sits farther away from everyone in the evenings, she is not included in discussions, and does not get as much help from the children, because hers is too young to help her yet. Her shoulders hunched self-consciously, she is often the only one laughing at her jokes. But her selflessness persists, offering to walk me to a boutique at night so I can change my light bulb or providing me with coffee when I need to wake up earlier than usual. She will stop everything to greet me at different times of the day, and is the most attentive to Baaba’s needs, as well.
These people have already changed me so much and have shaped my Senegalese personality into what it is, as of now. I can only imagine how they will have shaped me as a person after two years of living with them. They are each so unique, so interesting, with histories I have just barely been able to learn about, my language skills still in an infant state. With my growth and understanding of the language and culture of Senegal, I only hope to expand my knowledge and understanding of these people as much as I can. This is only the beginning of what could very well be a lifetime relationship with these people. Whether or not I am in direct contact with them in the rest of my adult life, they will be so much a part of who I am as a person and who I become. There is no way they could ever understand how influential they are and will continue to be to me in my life. And this is just the beginning.