A memory

Gaya Morris - Senegal


May 6, 2010

Here is a blog post I meant to post a couple weeks ago but somehow never found the chance to. I guess now you could call it a memory.

My alarm rings at quarter to seven (as I am unable to prevent it from doing every single day due to the broken screen) and I jolt awake to the dim bluish light and soft shuffling beginnings of morning traffic in Dakar. The five rectangular shadows of the other fellows and their mattresses are motionless, poor Mathew still with his backpack for a pillow. Fifteen minutes later I’m dressed in yesterday’s outfit, damp from the humidity that the sea breeze brings to this northern part of the city, my hastily stuffed tote bag already cutting into the same old nook and in my shoulder, and I pause at the door wondering if I should wake somebody, feeling weird setting out alone. But I had told the kids that I would be at school at nine as usual – and besides, I had already decided. I take one last look at the large, emptied room, the site of so many monthly meeting memories, and then turn away.

I let the door click closed behind me, and start trudging through the sandy roadsides of Yoff, up towards the highway. I stop to buy a pain au chocolat at the French bakery, full of warmth and delicious smells at this early fresh-bread hour, hurrying past the talibe, little boys barefoot and in tattered clothing stationed already at the threshold of the glass door, shaking their empty tomato cans already containing a few coins and sugar cubes. Saraxsi egg naa, I say under my breath. I’ve already saved my soul. At the highway I wait for the right moment to dart across, clamber over the concrete barrier in the middle and then hurry after an already stopped clando. A clando is like a public taxi that can take many passengers at once short distances for small fees. The only way to recognize them is to simply look for the smaller, older-looking, most battered up vehicles on the road; the ones emitting little spurts of brown exhaust and making the loudest clanking noises. Cracked windshields are almost always a given but these days even for the regular yellow taxis broken glass isn’t that extravagant.

Assalam Malekum I say as I climb in after the other two male passengers already seated. Patte d’oie. And nothing else. No one is talking at this time of morning. I fish around in my pocket for a 100 franc piece, not really sure whether it should be 50 or 100, and sometimes I get really hung up about not getting ripped off, but then I just think, really, does ten cents make that much of a difference?

I climb out of the clando at the “estation” (the Senegalese can’t pronounce the ‘st’ without putting an ‘e’ in front of it when speaking Wolof) of patte d’oie which I learned later on means literally “duck’s foot” although the figurative English translation would be “fork in the road.” The station is made up of a haphazard cluster of white buses in an unpaved clearing alongside the highway. A few of the vehicles have colorful word art painted on their fronts and backs (religious phrases such alhamdoulilah, thanks be to God, or simply Touba, the name of the holy city of the Mouride brotherhood in Senegal) and some have colorful tassles or ribbons hanging off back bumpers and lacy curtains framing foggy plastic paned windows.

Scraps of stray fabric and litter beaten into the dirt form a sort of carpet and a few umbrella shaded stands overflowing with piles of plastic wrapped confections, strings of phone cards flapping in the wind, seem abandoned in temporary corners in between buses. A few individual vendors wander bearing washcloths and packets of chewing gum, perfumes and plastic bags of water. But its too early for the women, balancing platters of fruit majestically on their heads and dangling long strings of peanut clusters right in front of your nose.

I stand but for a few long moments in the middle of the clearing, wondering how to find the right bus, and trying to ignore all the hissing (what people do when they want your attention) before someone calls out to me “eh, toubab, fooy jem?” (hey white person, where are you going?) I identify the speaker, “Sebikotane” I answer, and then hustle after him as he weaves his way through the crowd, deeper into the throng of buses.

The Ndiaga Ndiaye (that’s what all the white buses are called) that he takes me to appears full when I step up the back stoop. But then the apprenti (the young man who hangs out the back yelling out the destination and collecting bus fares) lowers the extra bench down from off the roof to stick in between the two back rows. After two other people take their seats on this extra bench there is really barely any space left: only just a tiny sliver perfect for no other than a small person such as myself and I squeeze in to perch on the edge of the seat cushion, remarking that the only thing actually holding me in place is the pressure from the bodies around me, on all four sides. I try to ignore the awkward angle of my lower back and lift my head to look around. Two small speaker sets fastened to the metal walls above the windows with nails and rope are currently emitting a tuneless, blaring Arabic chant which must be of verses of the Quran. The male voice is sometimes high pitched, sometimes throaty, rising and falling, bursting with passion and then collecting. Craning my neck to look over people’s heads to the front of the bus I can see the usual colorful posters of ninja-looking marabouts and wrestlers alike, Senegalese celebrities. Hawaiian leis and prayer beads dangle from the mirror above the driver’s seat, and grungy looking teddy bears line the dashboard.

The people are dressed in a full array of outfits, from fully dolled-up dirianke women with their sparky, starched headscarf configurations perched like feathery crowns atop their heads, with bangly gold earings dangling and pungent perfume, to shabbier though hardly less beautiful grandmothers, loosely covered in drapes of boldly patterned, colorful wax fabric, bearing buckets of goods to sell in their laps, and gnawing on the usual thick wooden twigs, which I’m told are for cleaning teeth. Men are dressed in everything from track suits to work suits, to full boubous complete with embroidered hats.

I try to make myself as inconspicuous as possible in my little nook, but I can’t help wondering what all these people must think when they see me: a small, young toubab girl with an incredibly full bag and a curious green colored jug of water. Alone. It’s rare enough for them I’m sure to see any toubabs at all on public transportation headed out of Dakar. Its likely that some of them think I’m a peace corps volunteer, for the Senegalese are generally familiar with the peace corps and it wouldn’t be the first time I was associated with this group, which I honestly find kind of cool. But really, who am I in the eyes of these strangers? Someone with a lot of money who is too stingy to spend it on better transportation services? One of those cheap hippie tourists who play guitar and smoke with bifalls? Vaidehi or Anna Julia (soap opera stars on Senegalese tv) finally come to Senegal? An albino? (probably not) Or simply an unexplainable mystery? My anonymity amongst the fleeting gazes of these silent strangers is at once thrilling and liberating, though often it can be overwhelming to stand out so much, distanced by a gap of understanding, and yet to be physically so close and present amongst them. Sharing, perhaps more literally than I would like, the same breath.

Traffic is at a steady flow at this time of the morning and yet we still get held up a few minutes in the bottleneck leaving Dakar, the stretch of highway along which vendors rush down the side embankments, down from the shack-like dwellings built into walls and fences atop them, to dangle sachets of peanuts and cashews, beignets and cookies through bus and car windows. Coins and goods are passed from hand to hand amongst passengers and vendors. The apprenti calls out ci kanaam, seen paas! (Just like with Mel and Tapha back in my old wolof textbook) and one by one people start passing back their bus fares. Having already paid, my eyelids start to droop, and I relax into the sway of bodies.

When I open my eyes we’re approaching Rufisque. Sheep corner, I like to call it, the market-like clearing that right before Tabaski was a sea of sheep and vendors. Then over the putrid, green-puddled canal, past the ‘village des tortues’ sign, past the route of the horse drawn carriages and the goods of sidewalk vendors displayed on low tables or on plastic sheets right on the ground: whole fish, shoes, bananas and baguettes. After Rufisque the stops are more frequent: Barny, Diamniadio, and then Sebikotane

Jumping down somewhat clumsily from the Ndiaga Ndiaye, a transformation comes about me. Whether its more like stepping out of a dream or back into one I’m not quite sure. The thrill of riding the currents of the public transportation system, a lone anonymous traveler immersed in one of the tightest saturations of the sights, smells and sounds that are Senegal, never fails to be a well needed dose of fresh air, perhaps more figuratively than literally. It renews some sort of perspective. But returning to Sebikotane after the wild journey, the sudden step back into familiarity, is perhaps the best part. Its just one stop among many – poste-courant, Sebikotane its called – but it has somehow become my stop.

Following the usual path along the winding sandy streets, I pass a few people I recognize, and others who undoubtedly recognize me. Adjia fooy demoon? Where did you go? People ask. Kids call out, sometimes my name, sometimes just ‘toubab, toubab.’ But then nearing the corner of my host house, one little voice calls out louder than ever ”Mademoiselle Gaya! Mademoiselle Gaya!” I turn around to see Souleymane Gueye running up to meet me beaming that soft, sly smile I know so well. Souleymane has been one of my favorite students ever since we became friends on the first day I arrived at Sebiroute. He had hurt his leg playing soccer and so I sat with him under the shade of the big narly tree in the school yard, trying somewhat awkwardly to comfort him while his classmates continued to play. Such a sudden outburst from a usually shy, quiet boy surprised me but made me smile. Souleymane had been disappointed that he had had to miss the library activities during the vacation since he had had to go to visit family in Thies. But now he is back. “Aujourd’hui on vient a quelle heure?” he asks me. What time should we come today? “Tout de suite” I say. Straight away. “Je serai la tout de suite.” And I hurry into the house to greet my host mother, drop off my bag, scarf down my pain au chocolat and get ready for school I think how truly, I don’t think I could have thought of a better welcome home.

Gaya Morris