The neighbor’s rooster sounds my first wakeup alarm. I snooze until the morning call to prayer warbles its way from the mosque and through my window. Rubbing my eyes I leave my room to drink from the communal cup which sits atop the family’s clay water sion. My host mother already kneels outside on her prayer mat, facing eastwards towards Mecca. I pass her in running shoes and pants long enough to cover my knees.
As I exit the compound I glance towards the sun peeking over the mountaintops. Within the next few hours it will render the streets unbearable and force everyone into the shade. Even the goats will tiptoe and press against fences to hide in the narrow midday shadow. But for now the air retains last night’s chill.
I set off north on the one concrete road. I pass a good dozen heavy cargo trucks. Beside them the truckers are packing up their sleeping mats and cots. Some lean against their vehicles sipping cafe tuba. Most all of them greet me in Wolof or French, Senegal’s official languages, though plenty of them are Bambara.
The road beside me is lined with restaurants and small food stands, not yet opened. A baker passes on a bike, his rack piled high with baguettes. The only other movement comes from a line of workers in neon yellow, trudging be towards the gold mines.
Within a minute the sleepy morning Mako is past me and I’m on the open road. On either side dry farmland blends into the brush, and farther on lie little mountains. In October the valley was golden with corn, and the mountains green with vegetation. But since the rainy season ended the green steadily browned and the gold burned to black in the nightly brush fires. Whenever I run at dusk instead of dawn, I watch the curved lines of fire lick up the mountainsides in awe.
The road is littered intermittently with cows, sheep and donkeys. An enormous herd of goats comes into view over a hilltop, and in a few paces I see two herders. They wear the head wraps and robes of Nigerian Peuls. I recognize them and wave – I saw them the day before at Tomboronkoto, a village 9 km in the opposite direction from Mako. One shepherd dangles a baby goat by the legs who didn’t make the trek.
Soon I enter the village limits of Niemenike. It is tiny compared to Mako, with only a few boutiques lining the road, and none of the trucks. I pause my music so I can meet everyone’s greetings. Walejam? A man asks in Pulaar. “Have you passed the night in peace?” Jam tung, I answer. A group of Malinke women pumping water call out erruceeta? I respond erra! and ask errtelimantili? I don’t understand a word of our exchange, but don’t want them to find out I don’t actually speak Malinke. I turn and head back south.
On my way back through Niemenike the village is starting to wake up and I am met with a veritable chorus of welcome. Kids scream out TOUBAB [white foreigner] and run out from huts, from boutiques, from the very bush itself to see and pursue me. I windmill down the street, too breathless by this point to respond with anything but a big wave. Donne-moi un cadeauuuuu, the children sing. “Give me a present!” Every child in Senegal can say this sentence in perfect French, and sometimes that’s the only French they know. I’ve heard kids in Mako correcting their younger siblings on how to pronounce the phrase, and even practicing funny variations. I feel like a conductor, leading a crescendo of toubab.
Back in the no man’s land between villages, trucks start passing. Each sends up a choking cloud of the reddish dust that coats every surface of the Kedougou region. Helmet-less motorcyclists play chicken with me, speeding by so close I could touch them. I laugh as I near Mako and spot a friend atop a two wheeled donkey cart, headed towards the brush to collect firewood. He cheers me on: dogu, dogu! (“Run, run!”).
As I reach Mako I am met by the smell of cooking oil and fires. Women fry dough to sell with coffee. Restaurants prepare deep friend eggs to serve on baguettes. Mothers stir gorsy, a thin rice porridge, over their fires. Several truckers are kneeled on mats in the road, already taking up the day’s second prayer.
By this point the sun is heating up, my legs are burning, and I’m parched. I sprint the last leg then stumble down the gravelly hill into our compound. I’m so glad to be finished running that for a moment I forget what’s next.
I grab the family’s bucket, set it atop my head, and head off to the pump to get water for my bucket bath.