Coming back from America was a trip, to say the least. Three flights – Sacramento to Salt Lake City, Salt Lake to New York, New York to Senegal. The trip over the ocean took 8 hours. With the time difference, I left New York around 9:30pm and arrived the next day in Senegal at 9:45am. Of all the flights on all the days, what are the chances that the two Peace Corps doctors (one of which had accompanied me to the US) would be on the same flight with me? Sitting in the airport at my terminal, I was the only Caucasian. That’s right, the ONLY one. Some of the men and women at the terminal were dressed in traditional Senegalese outfits, the men in their big crunchy fabric shirt/pants and women with big dresses and bou bous, their heads wrapped in matching fabrics. Others were dressed in Western clothes.
I thought, with smug amusement, ‘they probably don’t think I’m going with them to Senegal because of how out of place I must look.” I was too shy to talk to people in the terminal, not knowing if they spoke Pulaar, not wanting to make a fool out of myself, also not sure if I even remembered Pulaar. As we boarded, there was of course the Senegalese pileup at the gate and we all had to be reminded what lines are for. Aisle seat next to two men. Turns out they were both Pulaar speakers! We made the typical small-talk and conversation interspersed with English that helped me to slowly remember the language I had not used now for over a month. Upon arrival I met up again with the PC doctors who had been so integral in my care when I was in Dakar and on my way to the US. We went through customs and got our temperatures taken (thank God they didn’t take people’s temperatures leaving Africa or I would have never been allowed to leave! But at the same time… They are not taking temperatures of people leaving West Africa… Just sayin) You win some, you lose some. I stayed in the Med Hut that night and left the next day, having called my friend’s uncle who owns a cab. He not only carried my bags through the entire garage and explained to me the layout while asking different people for the car that I needed (in Wolof), but then didn’t even charge me.
Got to Ourossogui that evening, happy to see friends there at the regional house. I got a confusing phone call from my site mate John Kelley warning me not to go home tomorrow, there was a wedding happening, it was going to be overwhelming for me. Duh John, this wedding is the whole reason why I came home! But wait, had he said the wedding was tomorrow (Tuesday the 16th)? I knew for sure the wedding was on the 17th, I had planned my whole trip and medical care so that I would be there the day before the wedding. It had to be right. The next day I got errands run and then headed to the garage in the afternoon to head home. I got off the auto and was immediately swarmed with people heading towards my house, all dressed up! I felt like I floated into the house, carried by the colorful parade of people, and greeted warmly by big white calas (big scarves married women wear) and women cooking in my house (and my doorway!)
At one point, after I had showered and come back out, ready to take on the greetings with a bang, I finally realized that, ‘wow, this was a lot of preparation for a wedding that I thought was happening tomorrow… Shoot, this IS a wedding!’ But I didn’t have much time to stew on that thought or wonder how I had gotten the date wrong. Everyone in the village was there! I was able to greet each and everyone of them, all asking about my health, “ada selli no fewi?” Are you really well? “Aan, a sembori?” Are you better? “Hoore maa muusaani? Naati muusde?” Does your head not hurt? Has it stopped hurting? Aye, aye, Alhamdullilah, I tell them. Yes, thank God. Yo Allah rokku jam, yo Allah rokku chellal, yo Allah newn! The prayers flew towards me from all directions. I couldn’t say Amin fast enough to answer all of the prayers given to me. Dancing and singing ensued. My heart danced to the beat of the aluminum pots and pans.
Finally I realized, I’m not sure quite when it was, that this was the party awaiting the arrival of the wife. This therefore could not be Aissata Musa’s wedding. My older brother (who I had forgotten I had) had come back from Gabon for the first time in three years to get a wife. I knew her, and the realization of gaining a new sister was exciting! She was a fun girl; witty as all get-out, always quizzing me, “What’s my name,” while we watered the garden. I let it completely slip my mind that I would soon also be losing a sister from the house. But this was the time for celebration. You win some you lose some.
The singing and dancing went on late into the night as we awaited the arrival of the new wife. Speakers had been rented, a shade structure of metal and thick plastic-covered canvas set up earlier that morning. Older Koraanic students surrounded by younger boys sang and chanted, their repetitions amplified into the entire village. I had expected to come home to rest, going to bed early before the wedding, but young boys and girls straining to see the chanters sitting on the ground were currently dancing upon my bed. I set up a bed outside my room, hoping as soon as the wife arrived, people would go to bed. I was wrong. You win some you lose some.
The next day, the whole house awoke at the crack of dawn. Breakfast had to be served to the many guests who had come for the weddings. Rice sacks full of bread had been brought straight from the baker and coffee was stewing in a huge pot over the fire. Other houses had donated cups in order to provide caffeination for everyone. The cooking of the neeri (rice porridge that would be covered with cultured sweet milk and painstakingly eaten with your hand) had already begun across the courtyard, a whole delegation of people assigned to that task. Another group of men worked outside, slaughtering the cow and butchering it inside it’s own skin. People came in and out, dressed up in brand new clothes. Getting new clothes made is usually reserved only for religious holidays, but this was apparently a big occasion. My sister, Aissata Musa stayed at her friend’s house, getting dressed and all made up in preparation for the all-day photo session. The photos continued until the evening when she came back to the house, veiled in a shawl and surrounded protectively by her friends.
Now late into the evening, I went looking around into her room, curious to see what was going on at this point. The singing and dancing had died down, people sat praying. All was subdued compared to the festive daytime. Walking towards her room, I was ushered in as if they had been waiting for me but I had come just in time. I entered the small room, the walls lined with people sitting, Aissata Musa on the bed facing away from everyone, veiled in her striped marriage cloth. I sat awkwardly in the only space available, next to Aissata’s mother. Looking up I saw she was in tears, small restrained sobs occasionally escaping. Looking harder now at the veil sitting on the bed, I noticed it too was quivering with sobs. The sadness hit me with a blow and I remembered Aissata’s mother telling me about the wedding. I had asked her, ‘Now? Isn’t this soon? Is this not early? She is in middle school, what if she has a baby? She will drop out. Why now?” Her mother had agreed completely. She said, “Yes, now is early, but Baaba Musa has decided. Aissata’s father has been working in Gabon for the last 5 years without returning once, and there was no word about when he would visit next. He had decided that it was time that Aissata was to take a husband. Her husband-to-be was a boy, not too much older than her, who she had known (or known she would marry) for a while now. His family, where Aissata would now be living, were in Diaba, the neighboring village, but her husband lived in Vellingara, Kedougou. He will be far away but at least still in the country. You win some you lose some.
I put my hand on Aissata’s mother’s knee, knowing absolutely not how to act in this situation, but being content to sit there, feeling her sadness envelop me. My Baaba and another man led the prayer for her marriage, for it to be happy, for it to be healthy, for them to bear many children, may Allah make this (the relationship). The two women’s sobs became stronger, more violent, more helpless as Aissata was helped up and led out of the room, her face entirely enveloped by the cloth veil she clutched close to her eyes, wiping them. She was put into the car, already full of all of her closest friends, ready to spend the first week of her new life with her. There to help her, to support her, to love her. There for her every need. There to miss her terribly when she’s gone. They drove away from the singing and dancing, a few boys still hanging onto the back of the car, playfully banging on the windows and yelling, until they too jumped off and the car drove to Diaba.
I put my hand on Aissata’s mother’s knee, knowing absolutely not how to act in this situation, but being content to sit there, feeling her sadness envelop me. My Baaba and another man led the prayer for her marriage, for it to be happy, for it to be healthy, for them to bear many children, Yo Allah fewn, may Allah make this (the relationship). The two women’s sobs became stronger, more violent, more helpless as Aissata was helped up and led out of the room, her face entirely enveloped by the cloth veil she clutched close to her eyes, wiping them. She was put into the car, already full of all of her closest friends, ready to spend the first week of her new life with her. There to help her, to support her, to love her. There for her every need. There to miss her terribly when she’s gone. They drove away from the singing and dancing, a few boys still hanging onto the back of the car, playfully banging on the windows and yelling, until they too jumped off and the car drove to Diaba.
The night was dark as the charcoal left where the cooking pots had been. I weaved my way through the energy of the crowd eagerly wafting out of the double doors to the compound following my eldest mother with the flashlight. There was an emptiness in the air. We walked slowly, the mother and I, and I thought about the festivities but also about the sadness. I know, though, that my sister will be happy. She will have a loving new family around her, just like the new wife in our house does now. Whether or not their husbands are here with them, their husband’s family is, and they have become a cherished part of the new family. Life will continue as it always has. No matter what, you win some you lose some.