A History Written in the Sands

Elias Estabrook - Senegal


December 12, 2011

Silhouetted against a crackling fire, the children chant. To me, the words are a song of dynamic gibberish, though I know them to be beautiful verses of the Koran. The recited text is passed around the circle of restless brothers, sisters, and cousins, one child reading at a time while the rest provide a fervent background chorus.

My toes wallow in the cool sand as I stare out at the village plaza, mesmerized and calmed by the choir. It is the same ubiquitous sand that I often run across on the endless white beach or trek through to reach neighboring houses, the primary school, and the health post. Pressing onward, I often march across wispy, rolling dunes, following my brother home from an outing. Each step leaves a footprint, a merely ephemeral mark of my having passed, among the trails of many travelers of past and present.

My older brother recounts for me, one evening, that just like these children gathered around the campfire, he and his siblings once followed the same exact Koranic school tradition. In fact, so did his father’s and his grandfather’s generations. And so, as I gaze out at the flames flickering across their concentrated faces, my mind wanders to how the backdrop of this decades-old rite of passage must have changed. Occasions often arise when I start to piece together how my older brothers or even my host father – the chief of our village – must have grown up. Just as I am now accustomed to doing at the houses of cousins and friends, I look through the stacks of photos – treasures to be shared with and showed off to whomever passes through – and I admire the outfits they’ve worn, the way their looks have matured, and the people they’ve met.

Even more fascinating are the tidbits of history that I catch in the discussions that are held, because as much as frozen images are dear tokens and reminders to them, tales passed on orally from generation to generation carry the most meaning and most encouragement to imagine the world all around me. For instance, on one sweltering morning, my father pulls out the few weathered suitcases that he owns, dusty vessels that hold all his life’s possessions, and my curiosity is immediately sparked. Drowning among stacks of photo albums, elaborate boubou’s (African robes), and collections of Muslim trinkets, I listen intently to the story of my father’s pilgrimage to Mecca in the mid ‘90s. During other tranquil moments I hear the legends of other toubabs, notably the American missionary who landed his damaged boat on their shores and, more recently, Jeffrey Sachs (the renowned economist and head of Millennium Promise), whose footprint – through the work of the Millennium Village Project – is truly something to behold.

From what I can tell, the Millennium Village Project (MVP for short, in English) has indeed been one of the grandest developments in the region’s history. The more I travel out of our collection of villages to places that are more untouched and neglected, the more I realize how my little sibling’s generation has the opportunity to live a life considerably different than the generation of my grandfather or even my father. My brother often praises the project, once saying, “Avant il n’y avait rien” : before, there was nothing. Even though he may be mildly exaggerating, it is remarkable to think that in the span of about four years, the community has gained a capable health clinic, a new primary school that serves 150 students, clean water from a communal tap, an electric grid that lights up the village square, and relatively effective latrines. Yes, they are the basics, but compared to the unfortunate villages that sit in the dark every evening, lack any evidence of sanitation, or are hopelessly out of the reaches of a health post, they are infrastructural and foundational achievements, they are progress.

And so, as I stare out at the children swaying in united prayer, wondering what they may become or what world their generation may inherit, I remind myself that they have hope to cope with or even overcome rural poverty in a way that their parents and ancestors haven’t been able to. Even as I – an anthropologist-in-training – continue to dig up what life was like and what was accomplished, I increasingly move my attention to what can and will be accomplished because my sisters are going to school or my peers have access to primary care and family planning. My camera may only capture the environment and the services as they stand now, but looking through my photos I am able to envision a brighter path forward through the sands.

It was with this eye on the future that we recently celebrated Tamkharit, the Muslim New Year, following another decades-old tradition of gathering as a family (over fifty people in total) in the village plaza just before midnight. Chilled by the brisk evening, we huddled together in the customary circle, each, as we entered the ceremony, threw a few handfuls of sand onto the growing mountain in the center. Beyond physical warmth, I began to discover a real comfort in spirituality and unity of the circle ritual, as I sat between mothers, brothers, and cousins. The ceremony commenced and absorbed us into the recitation of the Koran, soon followed by a joint prayer, a chant calling for salaam – peace – harmony, and prosperity in the coming year. Bathed in moonlight, we asked for another tolerable year, a year of good harvests. We close, giving each other relieved smiles, asking “Accenam hakke?” – Forgive me? – and responding “Ay, me accenima” – yes, I forgive you.

The evening is an occasion for optimistic renewal and joyous celebration, yet I can’t help but wonder where I come into all of this, what sort of footprint I will leave on the road ahead. Surely, rather than simply being washed away by the tides of la mer, my mark will remain on this place, a community that I sense will, inshallah, welcome me back as its son for years to come. But I won’t set rigid or wishful expectations, and truly only time (the next four months, and beyond) will tell. On the other hand, I realize that – in the process – my new home, complete with its rolling sea breeze and radiating hues of tan and sandy orange, has left an undeniable imprint on my heart.

Elias Estabrook