Along for the Ride

Naomi Wright - Senegal


November 30, 2010

What the heck am I doing here?

Thinking two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, I raised my eyebrows at the car attendant gesturing animatedly, ushering me into the cave-dark of the canopied truck. I confusedly crawled in on all-fours. Sitting: knees nearly to chest, splay-legged, passenger in front wedged between, pinioned by tight skirt, puzzle-piece tucked into the woman behind me, left sandal lodged between dried fish and yucca root in a bowl of lunch ingredients. The truck runs over a pot-hole in the packed-earth road, jilting my head into the hard canopy above.

What the heck am I doing here?

Having spent the majority of the day in Potou, a village that neighbors my own Leona, at my host mother’s fabric stand, I’d left early to help at home with preparations for the upcoming holiday, Tabaski. This meant braving the car-rapide process solo.

Now, near-levitating on my left butt cheek, having given up retrieving my sandal, I focused my eyes forward, out the rear of the truck, on the skywhite peeping in between the lanky bodies of three men standing on the bumper.

This truck ride—the brain confusion, bright newness of sensation, complete inability to move, feeling that I’m doing everything wrong—it’s not much different than the process of getting settled in Leona.

With my host family, I rarely know my place. Some days, I’m expected to iron patterns at my cousin’s tailor shop, while other days, I peel and cut vegetables for añ (lunch), or go to the peanut fields on a donkey-drawn cart. The only phrase I’ve managed to perfect in Wolof (my family members’ primary language) is “Waxatal, ndank?” Repeat that, slower? I’m in the observation stage of my apprenticeship, attending seminars and activities in each of the Millenium Village sectors. Beyond my morning chore of sweeping the compound and eating breakfast with my family, I can expect little routine in my day; it might be spent on a woven mat in our courtyard, hulling kilos of bissap, or it might be spent in the sterility of a health post, watching newly trained nurses practice CPR on an infant mannequin.

What the heck am I doing here?

The woman behind me flops her hands over my shoulders, trying to readjust. “Nanga def?” She asks. How are you?

I’m good, I say, not because I’m doing well, per say, but because that’s the only response I know in Wolof.

Where do you come from? (This is a tough question, because of Wolof’s ambiguity.) I take a stab at responding anyhow.

“Just now, I was in Potou, with my mom at her fabric shop, but I’m living in Leona. I am originally from the United States.”

I can hear the surprise in her voice: “Toubab bi deggna Wolof!” She understands Wolof!

“Tutti rekk,” I say. Only a little. But I smile to myself and relax a little, easing into the arms of the woman behind me, feeling my un-sandled foot jiggling in mid-air.

Maybe I’m not doing so horribly after all. It’s tough to tell, because my progress isn’t tangible; I don’t know exactly why the heck I’m here. Looking out the truck’s rear, seeing the road slip rapidly by, I realize it’s the same with my apprenticeship, the language, my family: Eventually I’ll be able to see how my journey has changed me, but for now I’m just along for the ride.

Naomi Wright