6. Mango Tree Revelations

When I first arrived in Thiadiaye in the beginning of October, everything was new and fresh and begging for my attention. Yaay would take me to the Luma (the farmers’ market of Senegal) and every basket was full of vegetables, every table laden with fresh fish, every tent offering colorful cloth, and beautiful jewelry, and donkey harnesses were exciting and exotic.

As I passed through the gauntlet of elderly women occupying the shade of trees along my road, it was always an enchanting novelty to have them fawn over my hair and to dance to the clapping of their hands. Every meal was a culinary adventure and each midmorning I would hasten to our little kitchen to help prepare lunch. I kept repeating to myself in wonder, “There is so much here for me to learn!” And as I said that, my mind flew to all the fine meals I would prepare and the dances I would master and the languages I would learn and the clothing I would wear. I wanted to understand what this rich and lively culture was really about and I wanted to take a part of it with me. And the images I conjured were of me going home and preparing cebu jen. I’d set it on the table and everyone would think to themselves, “Wow, she learned so much in Senegal.”

But after each market visit and each whirlwind passage through my neighborhood and each recipe I copied down, it wasn’t that warm fuzzy feeling you get from receiving something precious. It was the empty, intangible sense that I was missing something. Every time I felt homesick, I would ask myself, “If you had to return tomorrow, what would you have to show for your time here?” For a while, the answer would light a spark that radiated gratitude for the months to come and enthusiasm to jump back in the game. But over time – and it took me almost the whole first month here – I realized that all those novelties of daily life were just that: daily life.

All those exciting adventures had become my routine.  I was coming to realize that spending six months following my Yaay to the market and passing by my neighbors and writing down recipes wasn’t the answer to my goals of self-fulfillment and cultural integration. And it was this realization that dug a pit in my stomach and replaced my gratitude with doubt. What would I do for the next five months? No longer did I know where to look nor did I know quite what I was looking for. I had been told that there was more to one’s culture than the food and music and clothing, and I believed that. But I didn’t really know what it meant.

After some pretty deep introspection – you should have seen me beneath those mango trees, daydreaming for hours on end, productivity and adventure at its finest – I began to articulate what these goals of self-fulfillment were and what I really envisioned to be “community integration.” It was then that I began to see why it takes more than sight seeing and writing down recipes and passing by neighbors to understand and be a part of a culture. And what all that really takes is time. Ironically, one of my personal goals was to be more patient. But just as you cannot simply decide to be patient and expect the next day to have it at the ready; you won’t understand and become a part of a different way of life by simply observing and taking notes on it like some young, naïve American who has just bounced out of a routine comprised of 12 years of straight-up observing and note-taking… like me. And these simple facts – the ones about taking time to learn something, and the ones about having spent so much time doing something else – result in a really tough transition from one to the other.

At least for me, understanding – really understanding – doesn’t come from being told the truth. Goodness, if we could all really understand what the Bible or what Gandhi or what our neighbors or what our mothers have been telling us all these years… I am sure the world would be a different place. Real understanding comes from taking the time to experience and to explore and to compare and to reflect. But the key is the time.

Already I’ve spent more time in this one village than I ever have taken to study any one lesson in school. And with five months to go, to explore this one lesson as it were and all that it encompasses, I am sure now that I will come closer to the answer. With time, I will be able to navigate through the markets, greeting familiar faces, and knowingly bargaining for the prices of goods. With time, I will seek out my neighbors and spend time with them instead of passing by. And with time, I will understand the secret of each spice and each step in the process not by reading a recipe but by being able to judge the taste, the color, the smell. But I can see that these aren’t deep lessons that I will have to study… instead they will be byproducts of life. And it is this realization that makes me certain that there is more to culture than daily routines.

What about the boy who warned me against spending time in the grove of ancient Boabab trees during the afternoon hours? And the grave tone in my yaay’s voice as she describes the time my little sister Fatou was taken over by an evil spirit? Or the attitude of burdened acceptance as the old man describes his responsibilities as the sole financial supporter of his entire family of over twenty members? Or the sense of humor sustained by everyone I have met? Or the loose and all-encompassing definition of family? So many moments I have come across that I cannot yet understand and so many noble behaviors that I cannot yet reciprocate. And with time, perhaps these too will be byproducts of the time spent here. Either way, it is with a sense of daunting relief that I set out to dig up the next layer. For, now I am sure of the existence of something I can neither define nor look for. And the possibilities of this quest are countless…

…literally… I’ve just spent two months from home with a vision and a sense of purpose that has gotten me this far, not to mention the hours it took for me to compose this update to you all, only to conclude that I actually have no idea what I’m doing and what will come of it. It’s kind of like my first blog post – if you didn’t happen to read it: it’s about how I didn’t know what to expect – except I’ve learned that I had, at the time, many underlying expectations I didn’t even realize I had until they were dashed to pieces by reality. The not knowing I have now… it’s like passing through a heavy fog where I know there are objects in the fog even though I can’t see them and I know I will come across these objects even if I don’t know what they are and I know the fog will lift because that is the way of nature.

Well that’s all for now 🙂


Nafi Satou Sene