Fanta

Alec Yeh - Senegal


April 14, 2010

Fanta is so freaking amazing. I had this great conversation with her last night after dinner. It always stems from food. She’s always asking me what food I like in Senegal. But then she stops me halfway through and says, “Okay okay. What don’t you like in Senegal?” And this happens all the time. That’s how all our conversations after dinner start. But this one just kept on going. We started talking about her history. We talked about what jobs she worked. We talked about what she wants to do in the future. Just talking to her, it made me respect and love her even more. I had no idea she was such a traveled, accomplished woman. Let me just give you a profile of her.

Fanta was born in Kaolack, a city in the middle of Senegal. She has two brothers and two sisters, and I don’t exactly know where she is in the age hierarchy, but I know she’s not the oldest or youngest. Somewhere in the middle. Her parents were Malian immigrants who came to Senegal because of the commerce. She grew up speaking Bambara (a Malian ethnic group) first, but quickly learned Wolof since you really can’t go through life in Senegal without speaking Wolof. She attended school and learned French there. She also learned a little English. Even today, she can say simple sentences like, “I am Fanta Cisse. I am Senegalese. I am a mother. I live in Sangalkam. My father is [blank]. My mother is [blank].” She really enjoys saying, “I am old. I am too old.” But the education system of Senegal, and actually of most of Africa, was much better back in her time. Her generation speaks the best French. It’s because after she was educated, there was a fiscal crisis due to the expanding production power of Africa, but a stagnant demand of products. But anyways. Today, she speaks EXCELLENT French. The best French out of every Senegalese woman I’ve met. In fact, people often ask her, “What school do you teach at?” In which she responds, “Oh I’m not a teacher! I only sell fabric!” What’s amazing is Fanta never finished high school. Because of early marriages in Africa, she got married and got pregnant with Pape, so she had to drop out of school before she finished high school. But she was so good at French that she went to Cote d’Ivoire and taught French at a school that her uncle opened. She taught little kids the basics of French. After two years, she returned because of her ailing father.

After he died, she didn’t return to teaching French. Instead, she became a merchant, like her parents. She’s worked a whole range of jobs. She’s made peanut butter and sold it on the streets. She’s raised baby calves up until a mature age so they could be sold. She worked as a tailor for the longest time. And now, she sells fabric because of her old age, along with other various things like raising chickens and selling ice. She no longer has the stamina to do all of the other jobs. Throughout her lifetime, she’s traveled all over Africa, mostly because of her job. She goes to Mali twice a year to buy fabric since Mali has the nicest fabric in West Africa. She has traveled to Guinea, Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritania, and more. She’s never gone to France or the US, but she’s already made two trips to Mecca! Which is crazy! Most people can’t afford a single trip, but she went in 2007 and 2008. She was planning on going again in 2009 but her mother got sick. And so I assume she’ll be going in 2010 since her mother passed away. Once a woman goes to Mecca, she gets the title “Ajaa” or “Ajaratu.” But I don’t know why she doesn’t go by that. I guess it’s because she’s modest. Love her.

She’s hoping to visit France this summer (and I’ll be in France this summer so maybe I’ll meet up with her!!) because her oldest son just had a baby girl (who they named Fanta). She’s so incredibly traveled! In fact, she was the first woman in all of Sangalkam to travel in a plane. How crazy is that!?!?? I just don’t understand where she gets all the money! I guess she’s really wealthy, but just lives incredibly modestly. I mean, she’s financially successful on her own with relatively financially successful sons. She has one of the richest husbands I know of, Baay Assane. She was previously married to Moustapha Senghor (the father of the three sons) who had a government job I believe (so it’s relatively well paid), but he died so she might’ve inherited a lot of money as well. But seriously, there’s so many possibilities that I just can’t figure it out!

And from being so traveled, and from living in communities heavy in Pulaars and Seereers, she can also speak those two languages. I didn’t think she could speak them fluently, but she told me she can express whatever she wants in the languages, which is better than my French, so I guess she is fluent. She can also speak another Malian language that I don’t know. So she can speak Bambara, Wolof, French all fluently. She can speak Pulaar, Seereer and that other Malian language conversationally fluently. And she can say a few words in English. Amazing. The most incredible part is the fact that somebody who can speak that many languages is a common thing in Senegal, in Africa. People may think Africans are uneducated, but a good number of them can speak more languages than Americans can dream of.

On top of Fanta being one of the most intelligent people I know, she’s also incredibly kind. She has had positions in multiple associations and local organizations, but with old age, she’s had to cut down her activities. She used to be a treasurer of this organization that promoted female farmers, but she stepped down because of all the traveling. Today, she’s a very respected figure in Sangalkam, both in the women’s circle and the men’s. She has a micro-financing circle of over 150 women. She’s the president and founder of this organization called Foird (totally wrong spelling) that supports local female artisans. And even when she sells all her fabric, which can costs upwards of 80,000 CFA, she’ll let people buy them on credit. Meaning, she’ll sell a person an 80,000 CFA piece of fabric, and instead of them having to pay it right then and there, she’ll let them pay her 10,000 CFA every week for eight weeks. That way people don’t have to break the bank to pay for her amazing Malian fabric. This is all I found out, but I feel like there’s so much more that she just hasn’t told me.

GOD I LOVE THIS WOMAN. I’m so sad to leave her, and I asked her if she would give me all her information so I can send her things in the future. I’ve thought about all the things I can send her. I can send her American fabric. I can send her school material for the kids. I can send baby clothes for all the babies. I can send her American candies. I’m excited just thinking about it. She wants to get a computer with a webcam so we can chat online! And she said that that way she can meet my mother! I’m gonna call her every day!

Alec Yeh