A Saturday Night in the Sahel

Charlotte Benishek - Senegal

March 28, 2012

To be clear, the following occurred and was partially written in early February, but for various reasons I only finished the post recently:

Megan, Kaya and I set out from my backyard, among the trash and goat poop, just as the dry heat of the Sahel Desert began to diminish, making the five mile walk bearable.  I could not escape the shrieks of “SEYnabou! SEYnabou! SEYnabou!” (my Senegalese name) that arose from the small children playing in the backyard of my uncle’s house – the one with four wives and seemingly innumerable progeny.  I waved, but as usual, that’s not enough for these kids – they keep screaming my name until I am well out of earshot, no matter how many times I wave.

Samuel had invited us to a mini Gamoul (a sort of religious pilgrimage for Tijani Muslims in Senegal) in his “ hometown” — Beutlamine, a tiny village which sits on the edge of the Sahel desert, rising amongst the sand and thorny acacia trees.  It would be a huge event, as social as it was religious, and Megan, Kaya and I didn’t want to miss such a significant occasion in our ordinarily sleepy collection of villages. Given how remote the village was, the prospect of finding a ride there was slim, so we decided to walk. We all had only been to Beutlamine once before, extremely briefly, so we were somewhat unsure about the way, but whenever we passed someone coming from the opposite direction, they would ask us if we were going to the Gamoul, so we figured that was a good sign.

Taking a Break on the Walk to Beutlamine











Finally, just as we began doubting our navigational capabilities, we reached Beutla, as it is known.  Unsurprisingly, even as we broached the outskirts of the village, people began to stare.  When we reached the town square, it was immediately apparent that everyone had arrived looking their absolute best – women wearing colourful dresses sewn from baziin, a cotton fabric pounded with wax until it shines, and the men in matching bazin ensembles of long tunics and pants.  Naturally, when three toubabs rolled into town, everyone stared.  We’re pretty used to it by this point, but you can never fully be comfortable with having all eyes on you so frequently.  I figured that it wouldn’t be especially difficult to find Samuel, being the only white person in the village besides us three.  There are small advantages to being a toubab at times; it certainly makes you stand out in crowd.

Later, Samuel gave us a village tour. We walked around the huge tent that had been erected for the event and into the area where various vendors were peddling crèmes (little bags of frozen juice cocktail), beignets (fried balls of dough), roasted peanuts, and even lingerie. As we walked through these crowed areas near the main tent, children began to congregate around us.  Samuel is very social and therefore mildly famous in the area. In true Senegalese fashion, he stopped to greet all of the friends he encountered, and each time he lingered, more and more children noticed the commotion and joined the growing throng forming around us.

Finally we arrived at Samuel’s family’s house.  We rolled in to his compound feeling like a group of major celebrities, with a crowd of 40 six to ten year old children encircling us. I didn’t want to get out the camera because I knew that they would recognise it and go berserk with requests for photographs.  Instead I slowly rotated my body 360 degrees, taking in the whole scene, trying to burn it into my memory because let’s face it – as uncomfortable as it was, it certainly wasn’t going to happen to me again anytime soon.  This whole commotion happened right around prayer time, and the adults weren’t about to tolerate such an interruption.  Samuel’s host brother quickly dispersed the crowd of little gawkers, and we settled down onto the busang (woven mat) and were almost immediately each handed a cup of ataya.

Just as dark began to settle upon the village, dinner was ready. As usual, we would be eating from a shared bowl of food on the ground with our right hands. Since we were the special guests, we were granted our own bowl of sauce, a dish frequently served on special occasions, consisting of potatoes, overcooked macaroni, fried goat and a good measure of oil.  Rather than being mixed into the dish in small pieces, the goat meat (yapp, in Wolof) is usually in one large piece on the bone in the middle of the bowl. Each bowl gets one piece to share.  Guess which part of the goat ended up in our bowl? The stomach.  I had eaten goat stomach before, back in November on the Muslim holiday of Tabaski, when each household sacrifices and eats a goat.  I myself am slightly confounded by why I didn’t particularly mind eating stomach that evening, but I really didn’t.  Samuel picked it up first and we played tug of war, Senegalese style, to get edible pieces off it.  In case you’ve never eaten one, you should know that the stomach is one tough organ! On the first tug, something resembling intestines spilled out on Samuel’s end. “Ooooh, my favourite,” he said with a grin, and quickly slurped them down in a typically Samuel manner.  My experiences in Senegal have confirmed that that’s exactly the sort of attitude that takes one far when exploring other cultures – just dive in.

Much to our chagrin, after dinner there was still no dancing or chanting under the tent as we expected.  Samuel asked his brother, and he said that it had already happened, but it might begin again much later.  We were disappointed to have missed it, but I had been to similar religious gatherings before, so I knew what I was missing. It was getting late, already midnight, so we decided to begin the five mile trek back to my village.  Luckily there was a nearly full moon, so we had a lot of natural light to walk by.  Early on, Megan looked up and noticed that there was a halo around the moon.  It was incredibly beautiful.  The cast of the moon and the night sky reminded me of the night hikes I had taken near my high school in New Mexico.  I find it remarkable how the most unfamiliar surroundings here in Senegal can conjure glimpses of my most familiar memories.  However, aside from that familiar night sky, I have to say, that night was unlike any other Saturday night I had ever experienced, and that’s a good thing.

Charlotte Benishek