Talia Katz - Senegal

January 22, 2013

For the past four months, my life has largely existed without the word “Thank You.” This absence does not by any means indicate a lack of gratitude or appreciation. It doesn’t mean that my passing of the hot pepper at the dinner bowl was a worthless action, nor does it mean that bringing cotton balls to the wound dressing room at the health post went unappreciated — not at all.

Simply put, here we say thanks differently.

Abaraka: The closest Malinke (along with several other Niger-Congo languages) equivalent of “Thank You.” Literally defined as may you be strengthened, may you be blessed, of Arabic origin.

It’s not peppered into the vernacular, nor will one hear it frequently. But when abaraka is used, it’s potent, and it means a lot.

Abaraka: May you be strengthened, may you be blessed.

To be brutally honest, this past week has served as my hardest yet. The village English teacher, my energetic teamate full of such determination and creativity, unexpectedly passed away at the age of 28. The chief of the health post, my mentor, my best friend, my role model — the one who keeps me both sane and on my toes — recieved an incredible promotion requiring him to travel most of the week (an huge gain for Senegal at large, and selfishly, a difficult change for me). The midwife, my motherly colleage and confident, recieved a new trainee, and thus I was asked to find a new work partner. My closest host brother, the one who took me on starlit hikes, who taught me how to make epic tea, who never laughed at my awful Malinke attemps, left unexpectedly in the middle of the night to recieve religious blessings for a critical medical problem — he will not return before I depart for the United States. All this occured within the short span of seven very long days. It felt as though an inconprehensable giant named fate swiftly destroyed the (apparently quite fragile) routines which I meticulously built myself during the months of October, November, and December as easily as one crunches dried leaves. I share this information not to complain, but rather to exemplify the challenge uncertainty at large brings to development.

But as the Senegalease say, “Ca Ira, ca va aller bientot”. Everything will get better soon. Bearing this in mind, I gave myself a challenge. List and recognize the constants within the village wich keep you strong, the repeated internations for which you have imminent  thanks.

I though I’d share the results.

To Musa, the roadside fruit seller, who never fails to offer me not only a huge smile, but also his own version of a “buy one banana, get one free” sale.

To Fatou and Mariama, the twelve year old girls who giggle with me as the sun sets, as we wait to fill our pails with water to wash the day away.

To Mama Gente, my spunky 50 cent rapper t-shirt wearing, peanut field cultivating grandma who sings “Bintou nataa, nyachalita” (Bintou arrived, I am happy)  while creating an upbeat rhythm on the nearest plastic bucket everytime I cross the bamboo threshold of our compound (even if I’ve only been gone for five minutes).

To Sadio, my pregnant sister in law who sneaks me the crispy rice left at the bottom of the cooking pan, simply because she knows I like it the most; who explains family drama to me in French when I don’t understand; who entrusts me with her roughest secrets, most earnest dreams.

To Papis and Bakary, the boys who surprisingly not only serve as my apprentences in friendship bracelet making, but also my saviors who teach other village children that calling out “Toubab, Toubab” is not acceptable behavior.

To every single person who has stopped me as I walk through the village to bless me and my “work,” to ask me if my family and I are in peace, to note my local language progression, to tease me about impending marriage proposals, to ask me something trivial as a not so subtle attempt to strike up a larger conversation, to call me by my name (even if I’ve forgotten theirs for the thousanth time), to those who tell me they’ve missed me, to the little children who argue over who will get to hold my hand as we wander, to the old women who give spontaneous hugs. 

Please and thank you may not exisit here, but if we have the tendency to say actions speak louder than words, then I’m the luckiest girl in the world. These are the people who make me feel like I’m not just an impotent, futile nineteen year old. They make me feel like I matter, they’re the people who see me for so much more than I see myself. And for that, I am eternally grateful. So here’s to them.

Abaraka, may you be strengthened, may you be blessed.

Talia Katz