Cast of Characters

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


April 14, 2011

About two months ago I moved to Noflaye and a new family—a wonderful family—that, among a bit of Senegalese dance and other things, has taught me the true meaning of teranga. My living situation is now divided between to places: my family’s home and the Village de Tortues/Kër Mbonat Yi, a small but important sanctuary for tortoises just down the road.

My family’s domestic circumstances, though several steps above the average humble concrete that constitutes most of Noflaye and Sangalkam, and certainly much nicer than the straw huts that house the poorest portion of the local population, includes a few couches, doors, and a refrigerator. What they do not have is space for another person, since they are pretty piled on top of each other already, so I have a small room at the Village de Tortues, where I spend the night, take freezing showers (I miss my Sangalkam bucket), hang my laundry, and have toilet paper.

It is not a conventional situation, and certainly not one in which I expected to find myself, a sentiment which fits perfectly in line with the many surprises of this year. But here’s the bottom line: I am happy. I laugh. I am healthy, or at least as healthy as I can be while eating ceebu djen for lunch every day. I love this family—my family—and am so sad that my time with them is halfway up. I feel as though I have been airlifted from a soap opera to be dropped in a sit-com. Thus, along with estimated ages (which change with whom I ask and on what day), here are all-too-brief summaries of some of the new characters at chez moi:

Mbao Samb Gaye, mother, age 42 (I have seen her health card, so I know her age): Mbao is one of the most welcoming people I have ever met. She speaks some French, though she speaks it like me, that is, with a lot of mistakes, but we have no trouble communicating. It seems that she only leaves the home to go to market, and she once noted to me that she could hire a maid to run the house, but finds a life of cooking, cleaning, and sleeping fulfilling enough. She prays in front of the television. Her couscous, and in fact just about everything she cooks, is delicious. No matter how much I eat she tells me it is not enough.

Papa/Al Hassane Gaye, father, late 40’s/early 50’s: Al Hassane comes from Malian lineage, but speaks Wolof, French, and a tiny bit of English. He is a hard worker, and makes a lot of sacrifices to support his family, staying in Dakar for a week or two at a time for his job, then returning home for 24 to 48 hours of rest. He owns three cell phones, one for each of Senegal’s main service providers. When he is home he can invariably be found on the couch watching soccer. And he loves to talk. Once, while I was in Dakar at a monthly meeting and he in Noflaye with the family, he called my phone to invite me to “kaay nu añ” or “come have lunch,” extending Senegalese politeness into an entirely new realm. Did I tell you about the time he popped his collar?

Abdoulaye Gaye, brother, 20 (or 21 or 22): Laye, my oldest sibling, loves sports. He plays basketball on the court outside Sangalkam and lifts a makeshift weight, two tubs of concrete hardened around a thick metal bar, on the roof. With a few years of high school to go he is intent on improving his English, and I help him out in the evenings. His favorite phrases are “hey, my brother!” “ya know what I’m sayin’?” and “if you don’t eat I kill you. Sit down.”

Pape Cheikh Gaye, brother, 18 (or 17 or 19): My mother likes to say that Pape Cheikh and I look alike, except that one of us is white and the other black. He is a really good-natured guy and enjoys dancing across the room, playing soccer barefoot in the sand, and visiting friends in Noflaye to pour àttaaya. I am always up for a walk with him. He’s a joker, but terrified of girls.

Gnagna Gaye, sister, 15 (or 13, 14, or 16): I have never had a sister… until now. It’s great. Gnagna has attitude. A lot of attitude. Her new favorite pastime is joking with/at her American brother, and we have a lot of inside jokes. About half the time our conversations or interactions end with her rolling on the floor laughing and the rest of the family saying “kii dafa dof” or “she is crazy.” She has been cooking for the family since the age of 11 and does a lot of laundry as well. Mbao says she does not like to let her out of the house because boys cannot be trusted. When Gnagna tries to trick me with tongue twisters in French or Wolof I throw back a few of my own in English (Peter Piper, woodchuck, she sells seashells, etc.) with a reprise of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major-General as a trump card. It is a special relationship.

Bayezale Gaye, brother, 10 (or 9 or 11): My little brother also loves to dance. And he loves the guitar. If I have not brought it over to the house for a few days he will crawl over next to me and whisper in my ear, “ana sa guitar? Kañ ngay ko indi fii?” or “where is your guitar? When are you bringing it here?” Sometimes when I go to take laundry off the line at the Village de Tortues he comes with me for the simple reason that he does not want me going alone. I am going to miss this kid so much.

Cheikh Ndiaye, fake brother, early 20s?: For about a month after moving I thought Cheikh Ndiaye was a boarder since he spends so much time at the house. It turns out he is just a guy who is really good friends with the family. He works in Noflaye, driving around donkeys pulling carts to deliver gas cans filled with water to people who do not get running water. One evening he simply fell off a stool, and my family thought this was the most humorous event of the century.

Cheikh Gaye, uncle, 50s?: My uncle’s family also lives with us, but in a couple other rooms. Every night around 9:30 Mbao’s brother walks into the room wearing camouflage-patterned pants. All the younger men, including myself, stand up and shake his hand. Then he walks over to my mother, and they exchange a handshake-fist bump combo and briefly catch up.

Isa, aunt, mid-40s or early 50s?: Whenever I enter the house I first walk over to Isa’s kitchen to say hi. Usually one or two of the girls are helping her cook. She asks me “naka sedd bi?” or “how is the cold?” and remarks “ngelaw dafa bere” or “there is a lot of wind” and then we laugh about something insignificant. She has a great smile.

Mari, cousin, 13: Mari is a skinny little girl who gives a tiny, polite curtsy every time we say hello. Every evening without fail she appears at the door to invite my family to have dinner. When we all say, “merci,” she proceeds to invite each individual person. Last weekend when I stopped by in traditional dress (Tabaski clothes) on my way to a baptism celebration, she took off her shawl and laid it on the concrete before my feet. I made her pick it up, but in her excitement she called Isa over, who took the shawl and did the same.

Adja, cousin, 11: Adja is not a skinny little girl, but she is one of my favorite people in Senegal. Sometimes she pretends to speak English as it sounds to her, saying to me “hwya wan nwa po frwa nia whay” in a whiny voice. She is, without fail, excited every day when we see each other. She loves to sing, but is entirely tone deaf. I do not know how I survived four months in Senegal without her.

For photos, check out: http://ideaandfate.blogspot.com/2011/03/cast-of-characters.html

Gus Ruchman