Madeleine Balchan - Senegal

November 22, 2010

I’m in the dark. Neither of my two “moms” speak French. My Wolof is improving drastically but I feel I’m always in the darkness that descends on Leona, our village, at eight when the sun sets. A car ran into an electrical pole in Potou, so we were without power for 36 hours.

At 9PM I sat on a mat in the sand with Ndiy, the first wife who’s 28 years old, peeling bisap (a type of hibiscus). The light from my small maglight and “lamp” function on my phone cut into the black night just enough for us to distinguish the piles of seeds, hulled bisap, and sack full of bisap still to be peeled. There was just enough light for me to avoid slicing my finger with the paka, knife. I stared into the unknown as we worked and talked.

Our conversations are never deep – I wanted to ask her how the whole system of bisap harvesting works. I’ve noticed it’s mainly a job of females. Where do they sell them? How much does it cost to grow and how much money does she gain in selling? Does she keep the money or give it to Djiby, her husband? How long has she done this? How big is her field?

Instead, we talked about my first meeting for my apprenticeship with the Millennium Village Project.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“Waxtal.” I said. She laughed. I thought for a second and laughed as well.

I corrected myself, “Waxtan,” we had spoken together, I didn’t talk to myself.

“Who did you talk to?”

“The supervisors for the different MVP Sectors.”

“Male or female?”

“Five men. One American female who’s studying the project.”

“What did you talk about?”

“The work they’re doing.” We just had a complete conversation, with minimal “degguma” or “xamul” ’s on my part – “I don’t understand” and “I don’t know”. I still have a lot of unanswered questions. I still mock myself saying, “DEGGUMA, XAMUL, DEGGUMA, XAMUL, BIS BU NEKK!!” Always followed by lots of laughter but rarely followed by better comprehension.

It’ll come. I’ll keep asking questions, and eventually I’ll be able to understand the answers.

The next morning in the light I saw all the finished bisap.

“Ndanke, ndanke, moy diap galo ci nyae.”

“Step by step one catches a monkey in the forest.”

Madeleine Balchan