Conclusions of many sorts

Gaya Morris - Senegal


May 6, 2010

Its not the first time I’ve remarked how hellos are much more important than goodbyes for the Senegalese. There is no question that greetings are of the utmost importance – to shake the person’s hand and go through the usual series of inquiries about your friends family, health and happiness – but then its so funny how people can separate so abruptly, often without a word. Kids march into class in straight lines like little soldiers, but then pelt out in all random directions when the bell rings. My host mother will often simply hang up the phone without warning when she feels that a conversation has been sufficient. I would say that my culture (American culture?) on the other hand values endings more than beginnings. Or maybe its just me who thinks that those last words, last gestures, are important, to conclude a conversation on the right note, seal off a stage in your life or an experience properly. If ever I get cut off from a phone conversation with my parents back in the states right before we’re about to hang up, we still have to call back to actually say goodbye. And so naturally I was worrying about how on earth I would find the right things to do and to say to conclude the past six months of my life: to show my immense gratitude, appreciation and hope for the relationships I had built with the people and places around me. All of which I had imagined taking place in those final moments at door steps and car windows.

But instead, I felt as though my goodbyes were spread out over a gradual period of a few days, during which by simply spending time with friends and family, savoring last activities, I and they too were able to remark on the significance of our time spent together. The process was rather emotionally exhausting, and did feel a bit drawn out , but in the end I think I will always look back on those final days as some of my best in Sebikotane.

The subject of my departure had been a looming shadow over discussions for several weeks already, despite my constant efforts to evade it, but it wasn’t until my final Saturday with my host family that our activities seemed to reflect a sort of purposeful preparation for this fact. On Saturday morning I cooked my first and last very own ceebujeen, almost completely on my own. Kine got to gutting the fish before I could stop her, but after that my host mother made sure that I was the one to carry the calabash bowl to the corner market (although she came with me to assist with barging through the crowd of women to actually reach the table of veggies), to pound the stuffing, fry the fish, spice the sauce, peel the vegetables, sift  the rice, wash and pour and stir the rice, scrape the delicious sticky bits from the bottom of the pot, and divide the meal between the various bowls. I love the rawness of cooking in Senegal: its hard but satisfying work that requires strong, deft hands, agility and fearlessness of oil. I’m going to miss being able to just throw scraps on the kitchen floor.

At some point during this process I announced that I was planning on taking the kids to the beach that day. I had been contemplating this outing ever since the day I had discovered that Yama, my nine year old host sister, had never seen the ocean before. I had promised her right on the spot to take her to see the ocean before I left for America. Rufisque afterall, a seaside town, is only a half hour’s diaga ndiaye ride from Sebi. Yama wore her bathing suit under her clothes for two whole days after that conversation asking me every five minutes ‘Gaya, kan la nu dem geej?’ When are we going to the beach? That was back in early March.

And so that is why I had waited until only a few hours before a hypothetical departure to let the family know of my plans. Sure enough, as soon as the little ones heard the news, preparations began: Chuna, Yama and Mamor scurrying around trying to figure out what outfits to wear. A lengthy discussion with Mamor failed to convince him not to wear his shiny new converse sneakers, while Chuna peed in her pants three times so that by the time it was actually time to leave, she didn’t have any dry bathing suits left.

Around four o’clock we finally – me, the four kids and their mothers, Ami Ndoye and Kine, plus a little girl from the down the street who happened to be hanging around the house at the time – piled into a clanky white taxi called a clando that my host mother had called to pull up right outside the house. With the fast drumming beat of mbalax music blasting out the open windows and five kids jumping up and down like popcorn in the back seat (ontop of Ami ndoye and I), little Cogna clapping her hands and screaming with glee, we were quite a spectacle leaving Sebikotane, and hardly less of one when we got to the beach, a touristy nook called Toubab Diallo, only about a half hour’s drive away. The little ones were absolutely terrified by the ocean, the crashing waves, the swells of water rushing up all around them, the chill of the wind, the salty taste, and their mothers were hardly sympathetic; splashing and giggling they would drag nervous Chuna and Mamor down into the water. I scooped up little trembling Cogna in my arms, determined that at least one of them not be traumatized by her crazy mother, and held her just at the water’s edge. Yama and her friend were unsure but a little more bold. Soon the whole family (driver of course included in the true Senegalese way, although we had only just met him this afternoon) was one big sandy, giggling, screeching heap rolling about in the shallows of the waves. I took pictures of course, and then assumed the role of piggy-backing Yama actually into the water. Both of us breathing fast against the cold, Yama’s bony arms clinging about my neck for dear life, me walking backwards against the waves to shield her – it was an experience I’m sure she will remember. By the time we started getting ready to leave, only poor little Cogna still seemed unconvinced. The two year old had the most confused, bewildered look on her face as she sat down in the sand looking out at the water, her bottom lip trembling from cold. I wrapped her up in my towl and handed her to her mother in a bundle. Back in the taxi returning to Sebi she and her brother fell fast asleep intertwined in their mother’s lap. The others were quiter too, though Yama’s eyes followed glimpses of the water through gaps in houses and cliffs for as long as they could.

The next day I started packing. I took advantage of some quiet time early in the morning while the kids were still mellow and had not yet returned to their favorite hideout (the hallway right outside my bedroom) for already Yama had started crying and I wasn’t ready to face this yet. She would just stand in the doorway to my bedroom and cry, and tears streaming down her face repeat in the most helpless little voice – that in other attention seeking situations I would call manipulative and do my best to ignore – Gaya, sooy nibbi damay jooy, bul nibbi, Gaya. Gaya, when you go home I’m going to cry, don’t go home Gaya. When I had first told her I was leaving earlier that week she responded immediately by emptying her school back pack and stuffing some clothes and her favorite sneakers into it. Sooy nibbi damay and ak yow! She declared stubbornly just as she always would when I told her I was going somewhere. When you go home I’m coming with you. She carried a plastic bag to school for the rest of the week. I tried to explain her that this time it was going to be different – that she actually wasn’t going to be able to follow me this time – explaining the bus I had to take and the airport and the plane. And with the help of her grandmother, by Friday, though her backpack was still stuffed and waiting, she had started to understand what this actually meant. And thats when the tears started. I was startled and feeling the need to I tried to comfort her, though I knew from six months of experience with this child that these were not tears that could be wiped away by any tender hand. For she did not yearn for the solace of an embrace, did not understand the meaning of sympathy or reconciliation or forgiveness having never received any. Her frequent fits, tantrums and tears were never acts of vulnerability, but acts of anger and defiance. Like a little girl who had been lost too long in the forest, had shouted for too long without hearing an answer, it was as if by then she shouted, howled into a void, and so thats why she shouted louder than ever, and drowned out the possibility of any response. I’ve already written a whole post about my relationship with Yama, so I’ll just leave it here for now though I’m sure this is something I’ll be returning to. She’ll be the puzzle I’ll never give up trying to solve. How a child can become so alone, so orphaned, within its only family. And such a family!

And something tells me she probably won’t forget me either. At least for a very long time. I left her my favorite backpack. The orange Jansport one that I carried to school when I was her age. Though hard to part with, I felt like only something very significant like that would be fitting; kind of symbolic of a part of me that, thanks to her, I’m leaving behind.

***

While my main priority during those last few days was certainly to spend time at home with my host family, I found myself back at l’Ecole Sebiroute for some reason or another almost every day right up til the very end, determined to have some sort of a hand in the fate of the computer lab and especially my dear library. Months ago when I began questioning the sustainability  of all my efforts I feared that there would be no one able to “take my place” and ensure that the two rooms would be unlocked from day to day. And then one day a few weeks ago, by pure chance, I had happened to meet Mamadou Soumare in the computer lab and he happened to mention to me the movement he is a part of of high school and university students living in Darou Salam, the neighborhood right behind the school, who want to work to improve the level of education amongst all ages in their neighborhood. One of their planned initiatives was to start a local library/cyber to occupy students during after-school hours. Immediately I jumped at this glorious idea.

But you already have a library! I said. Right here at the school. And I’m pretty sure that in a few weeks time no one will be using it.

Later that week Mamadou introduced me to the founder of the movement, Amadou, to whom I promised a meeting with the school director, Monsieur Faye, to discuss our idea. It wasn’t that they needed me in order to talk to the director; I just couldn’t be sure that they actually ever would if I didn’t arrange the appointment. Just a little help with coordination was all I gave them. During the actual meeting which finally took place two days before my last, I was basically just there to listen, and did so contentedly, sitting calmly in my plastic chair in between Mamdou and Amadou, facing the cluttered desk and golden torso of M. Faye, illumated in a shaft of sunlight pouring through the open window, listening to the hopeful words being uttered, ideas being exchanged, promises of dedication: change being made. Acknowledging that their numbers were slim, M and A stated quite humbly that they were prepared to carry the brunt of the work during its beginning stages. They agreed that the best way to get started would be to talk to the teachers and gauge the needs of the students. And then they even spoke of building a sort of training center on school grounds, meant to occupy those youth who do not continue on to high school but who choose to take up trades instead such as carpentry, mechanics, tailoring. And they weren’t empty promises, for both the big and small were discussed – grand theories and visions as well as practical details. Challenges were anticipated.

Not without a bit of a lump in my throat, I sat there feeling my past six months’ worth of work slipping out of my hands. Part of me was regretting that I couldn’t stay to see what would become of this new partnership while another part wanted to pinch the other and say but just look at this beginning you’ve made possible. You should be happy and proud that they don’t need you anymore. Before the meeting was ajourned I tried to express some of this hopefulness that I felt for them, and warned them to not be too annoyed by my frequent emails asking for news and updates. And you never know, I said, there may be some way for me to continue to contribute to your efforts from the United States, at least until the day that I come back. Inshallah.

The following day I dressed in a bright yellow jumpsuit-like boubou my host mother had had made for me, complete with the plastic purple shoes that she had bought for me for my birthday oh so awkwardly back in November, and I walked down the sandy, litter strewn path to school, for the last time. I hardly ever wear Senegalese clothes, always feeling when I do that I’m dressed up in a ridiculous costume, but on that day I felt that the yellow jumpsuit was just too appropriate. Sure enough I was greeted by so many surprised smiles.  Sai-sai gna! You look so nice! Various teachers called to me from classroom doorways, and I would hurry up to shake their hands, just as I always would.

I was encouraged to see that someone had managed to retrieve the keys to the library for the door was already open, and inside Mme. Boodian, Mme. Kane and Mme. Diop were busy dropping handfuls of beignets onto plastic plates and filling tall crystal cups with a thick syrupy juice. I knew that the purpose of the little goodbye party was basically going to be giving me gifts and making speeches about me, as I’m supposing is traditional for the Senegalese to do when someone leaves. They just love ceremonies. I soon felt quite overloaded with handfuls of fabric, clothing and jewelry, and I did my best to accept everything graciously. Then some of the teachers with whom I had worked most closely read their prepared words of praise and admiration, M. Hanne reciting peotry off the top of his head, poor M. Ndoye stuttering nervously through his scientific-like evaluation of my work, and M. Sow reading a letter of recognition from the mayor. My host mother, present and tearful at my side, gave her thanks in wolof, and as would only be appropriate, proclaimed each and everyone of ‘my colleagues’ to be her children, since I, her daughter, was one of their family. But what really got me the most were the letters Mme. Ndiaye had had her kids write which they read out loud to me, in those nervous, robotic run-on sentences that I’m so used to hearing them read in. And then they sang a song of farewell. Mme. Ndiaye, usually the most cheerful and boisterous of all, had been unusually quiet ever since she had stepped foot in the library and almost tearful, avoiding my eyes, and now I understood why: she had undoubtedly spent the whole morning preparing this little ceremony.

Finally I read my little speech which I had prepared just that morning over breakfast to be able to somewhat eloquently express my gratitude to all the teachers. I asked them to look back on the person I had been when I had first arrived, and then to take a look at what they had helped me to do, accomplish and become. I thanked them for their faith and patience throughout the gradual process, and finally concluded by saying that they had inspired me. And I wasn’t just saying it, for it’s true! At the start of my bridge year I was interested in working in all fronts, areas and aspects of development (health, agriculture, education etc.) and am now coming out of it with a more focused interest, inspired as I was every day within the walls of that school, by the challenges, importance and wonders of education. And inspiration – truly – what greater gift could one ask for?

Overwhelming and daunting though such grand things said can be, the beignet banquet felt like the most perfect way to conclude my six months at my apprenticeship. I poked my head for one last time into each classroom to say goodbye to the kids, and then I left.

***

Despite the relatively high degree of ‘cultural competency’ I felt I had achieved by the month of April – an ability to greet people with ease, joke along, know when and how to refuse or accept constant offerings of food, deal with tubabing and stereotyping of westerners – my departure reminded me of how I will always have more to learn. For just as Ami nDoye and Ami Diop (two of my closest friends, one a girl my age and the other one of the young mothers in my host family) had lead me practically by the hand through the various introduction ceremonies back in November, they now lead me through the conclusions.

I was hovering around the kitchen doorway Sunday evening, bouncing around Cogna and watching Kine stir her enormous pot of porridge, as I usually like to do when I can’t think of anything else, when Ami Ndoye marches up and asks me so when are you going to visit ker noom nabou?’ (a family living down the street who is apparently related to ours). I was rather taken aback by the force of her question. Uh, I wasn’t going to, I said. Why? To tell them you are leaving of course, says Ami Ndoye. But I just saw Rama a few hours ago and I know she knows, I said. But Ami Ndoye shakes her head and I start to get the sense that this is another one of those important things that she understands and that I don’t, although as usual my conversations with Ami Ndoye are limited by the language barrier. So I have to go huh? I ask after a few moment’s pause. Yes, she says, you should go now, and she grabs by hand and drags me out the door.

For apparently, although on a day to day basis this doesn’t apply, there is a proper way to say goodbye to family and friends when leaving after a long visit. The process is called “tago” and it involves making visits to the various families you’ve known to announce your departure. The visits aren’t really all that different from any others except that upon learning of your departure, the host is meant to present you with a gift, whether it be cheap plastic jewelry bought on the spur of the moment from a boutique, or a barely worn dress or pair of shoes. You sit on the couch in the family’s salon and you might intermittently break the silence by repeating how much you are going to miss each other, the friend often clinging onto the joke that you are taking him or her back with you. The tv will be playing in the background and you shouldn’t feel bad to stay and sit even if there is no conversation, for its as though the shared knowledge of the importance of you simply being there, of simply having made the visit and accepted the gift prevents silences from being awkward. Once the time to leave has come your host walks you to the door and sometimes all the way back to your house. Your friend might wish you a bonne voyage and express some last regrets at your departure, but there is no need for tears because you shake with your left hands (which is meant to guarantee you’ll meet again some day), and besides you’ll probably see each other again before the time you actually leave, passing in the street, at the boutique. But like I said the actual last moments before your departure are not all that important because what needs to be said has been said, what needs to be expressed has been expressed. Oh, how the Senegalese have a way of easing some of the potentially most distressing situations.

Our very last “tago,” fellows all together, was to the Sebikotane Mairie, the town hall. Bags packed and loaded into the bus, this was our very last stop. Though the words spoken during our last little goodbye meeting brought tears for many, the final embrace I gave my host mother I felt was a happy one, as a culmination of all we had been through together could only be. Somehow, although I had been dreading this moment for weeks, wishing fervently that I could stay just a few more months, I felt finally ready to leave, like the time had come.

Gaya Morris