Bissap Revelations

Naomi Wright - Senegal


December 6, 2010

I am freshly showered—out of a bucket—and my Senegalese mother is waiting for me: we are going to the fields. Sun streaks through mosquito net, making lace on the mosaic tile floor.

“Fatima Jow!” My host mom’s voice booms my newly-acquired Senegalese name. I shout Yaay! the Wolof word for mother, poking my head around the door.

“Nungiy dem!” I say. Let’s go! At my feeble Wolof, Yaay spills laughter into the morning air. We begin the trek to our family’s bissap fields, my flip-flopped feet sinking awkwardly into the sand of northern Senegal. Clad in an enormous boubou, a veritable tent of fabric covering her girth, Yaay is a formidable woman. Her hands are worn to leather from years in the bissap fields, and the permanent crinkles around her eyes make it so she is always smiling.


Once in the fields, we bend double, stripping the deep crimson flesh of bissap flowers from waist-high stalks, slowly filling the first burlap sack.

“Attention, ça pique!” Careful, it’s sharp! Though razorcuts from the bissap’s spiny stalks score the length of my fingers, they haven’t slowed Yaay’s progress. I keep blundering on, absentmindedly humming to distract from my poor picking skill. After a few moments: “Is that Bob Marley?”

“Dedet,” I respond, confused. No.

“I thought everyone in America liked Bob Marley.”

“A lot of people do,” I explain. “But we listen to all sorts of music. The United States is so big, it’s hard to say anything is true of everyone.”

“But Barack Obama, he is president of all of the States?”

“Yes.”

“Are there a lot of raxas, like him in the U.S.?” Raxas, I wonder? Then, suddenly recalling, I describe the complexity of having words like that—meaning someone with one white parent and one black parent—in the U.S., because people have such varied heritage. The concept of the melting pot comes to mind, but my limited French-Wolof bars me from using that exact phrase: “It’s like a bowl,” I say. “If you took people from all of the countries in the world, all the cultures, and mixed them up, that’s the U.S.”

“Ah!” She jabs a fistful of bissap at me in her enthusiasm. “Les États-Unis.” She says. “The United States. Everyone, together.” She pauses, thinking. “I wish there could be… Un Monde-Unis.” A United States of the World.
Stunned, I look at her. For a time, I hear only the snap of bissap ripping from its stalks. Before I can compose my brain enough to respond, a loudspeaker crackles in the distance: afternoon prayer call lilts across the fields from the mosque. Yaay tosses her handful of bissap into the bag, twists it closed, then helps me hoist it up to balance on my head.

We make our way back toward the village in silence. Yaay is letting me focus on not dropping the bissap bag, but I’m concentrating on what she’s just said. A united world—that’s why I’m in Senegal, learning and living a foreign culture. I believe the only way to begin to move toward that united world is to talk, as Yaay and I manage to do despite the language barrier. To exchange in that manner, without judgment or intention, only the curiosity to understand another’s culture, creates the opportunity for relationships. In that way, we will be able to work together toward A United States of the World, ndank ndank—little by little.

Naomi Wright