Tang Aning Segi — Malinke
Eighteen — English
Dix-huit — Francais
Fuk ak Djurom Nyet — Wolof
Maybe it’s because we scrutinize that which is closest to us, but I think I’ve begun to over analize the number 18. Although logically 18 is a number and thus should retain a certain universal meaning, I’ve come to realize that the language has a profound effect on how I perceive a situation and act within it.
Take Malinke for example. When I look down at Sadio’s health card at the Poste de Santé, I’m shocked to find that she’s only 18. Sadio had come in to receive prenatal preventative malaria care, only to find that she would give birth to her second child that afternoon. Later, sipping Ananas in the overheated maternity ward, Sadio confesses that she entered into an arranged marriage at the age of 16 due to monetary reasons. She tells me I’m invited to practice my shaky Malinke with her any time, that is, if I want. I tell her it would be my pleasure. As I walk back to my office, I think of Hawa, my 18 year old host sister, who, while not married, quit school to work at the gold mine and help with housework. But then there’s also Khadija, the student body president of the college where I will work. This year, Khadija wants to collaborate in order to develop an all girl’s soccer league for Tomboronkoto and the surrounding areas. When she turns 18 she hopes to move to Dakar to study medicine. Tang Aning Segi: 18.
And then there’s me. The toubab who deferred her first year of university to find herself 668 km from Dakar, attempting to learn, exchange, and make herself useful in Tomboronkoto, population 1700. A girl who at 18 is attempting to redefine her notions and conceptions of development. An 18 year old not the slightest bit interested in marriage, and who in fact, to the delight of her ephemeral audiences, can successfully refuse marriage proposals and gently tease the offender in Wolof, Malinke, and Pulaar. Eighteen: 18.
However, it’s critical to recognize that this picture isn’t black and white. I think of Youssou, my host brother in Dakar, only a couple years older than myself, who one night confessed that all he looks for in a relationship is “une femme avec un joli coeur,” who vehemently believes Senegal needs to take stronger action in regards to women’s rights, and who laughs when he hears a story of a man with more than one wife. Dafa dof, he’s crazy, Youssou proclaims. Dix-huit: 18.
I think of Anna, an energetic, powerful nurse from the north who relocated to Bajan in order to run a Case de Santé. In the span of one afternoon and multiple cups of ataaya, Anna has taught me more about traditional gender relationships and westernization than any professor could in an entire semester. She calls me her sister and promises that she’ll make us matching bracelets. I have no doubt that I will learn so much from her. Fuk ak Djurom Nyet: 18.
From continent to continent, region to region, I’m slowly gaining access to peer into the tangled, complex web of gender dynamics. I’m discovering that sympathy can be well intentioned, but courage, pro activism, and attentive listening are frankly more useful. So for now, I’ll keep observing and reporting, attempting to understand two simple digits which I’ve never thought so much about.