Finding a Home in Ndande—Highlights of the Past Eight Weeks

Aly Counsell - Senegal


December 30, 2013

December 6, 2013

So much has happened in the past eight weeks and there are so many things that I want to write about!  I’m currently volunteering at the health post, preschool, and high school in Ndande, which has given me a wide variety of experiences in the community, and I’m continuing to improve my Wolof (the local language), and build relationships with my host family and community members.  To give you the best glimpse into my life here, for the next two blogs, I’m going to share some of the highlights of my time in Ndande so far.

A few weeks ago, I went for a run with two of my cousins, Coura and Amy.  They took me to the very edge of the village, which marks the beginning of a long orange-dirt road that stretches for miles and miles passing through the fields that are owned and cultivated by families in Ndande and the surrounding villages.  The moment we reached the road and I caught my first glimpse of the sprawling landscape, I was struck by the indescribable beauty of where I am.  Before me lay a dazzling view of colossal baobab trees with scraggly branches contorting to support birds’ nests, and a sea of scrub bushes that concealed the subtle organization of the jaggedly divided plots of land, which were marked with bursts of color from their diverse crops.  As we ran, we passed men and women bent over with tools and large baskets on horse carts to collect the day’s harvest mostly peanuts, this time of year, but other fields were filled with corn, bissap (hibiscus with edible fruits and leaves), and all sorts of other things.  I felt so much peace as I ran down that road, and though peanut fields in Africa might not be a common ideal of beauty, for me, it was one of the most beautiful and moving experiences of my life.  When we reached Ndiakhere, which is a small village along the road, we decided to turn around and start going back home.  But first, Coura and Amy led me off the road and through one of the fields to a big fruit tree.  We each collected several of the brown, leathery fruits, called new in Wolof or pomme de Cayor, that had fallen on the ground and then we ate them as we walked back home.  I had never had this particular fruit before, but it’s really good!  It tasted a little bit like a banana, but was tougher and the fruit was between a large center pit and an outer brown shell.

I’ve always loved little kids, and though the youngest person in my house is my 11-year-old brother, I have about 20 cousins between the ages of 1 and 9 that live in the three houses next to mine.  I’ve become really good friends with all of them—and all of their friends, too—and whenever I come home from volunteering in the morning or going to my Wolof lessons in the afternoon, I am greeted by a swarm of kids.  When they see me in the distance they start shouting my Senegalese name, Adja, and then start running towards me, chanting, “Adja ñëw na!  Adja ñëw na!”, which means “Adja has come! Adja has come!” and then they tackle me with hugs.

Several weeks ago, one of the girls in my family was going to visit some of her relatives in another city and I was going to walk her to the main road, but before we left the house, she brought out an enormous bowl filled with millet and motioned for me to bend down.  I didn’t know what was going on, but I bent down and she put a cloth wrapped into a circle on my head, and then put the bowl on top of the cloth.  In Senegal, women carry things on their heads all the time—vegetables and fish when they’re coming back from the market, water when they’re coming back from the well—always with perfect balance and finesse and often while carrying other things in their hands and babies on their backs.  One of my goals for this year was to learn how to carry things on my head successfully too, so I was really excited to have this first opportunity to practice.  But it is WAY HARDER than they make it look.  Trust me.  At first, I clutched the bowl with two hands, terrified of letting go and dropping my family’s dinner in the sand.  But as we got further into the village and there were more people, I moved to use only one hand so as to look at least slightly less incompetent.  As we walked through the village, my friend with her bags and me with my wobbly millet bowl, people stopped and stared, pointed, laughed, and ran out of their houses to see what was going on.  The attention was nothing new for me, since I’m the only foreigner living in a village of 3,000 curious Senegalese people and I’m often doing things (such as speaking Wolof) that delight and surprise them because they aren’t characteristic of a foreigner.   Some women smiled and said to me, “Adja, yaangiy wali?”, which I later figured out means, “Adja, you’re going to the mill to have grain ground into flour?” (Yes, Wolof has a verb for that.)  After we left the mill with the millet flour, my friend turned towards the main road and told me to take the bowl back home to my mom.  But before she left, I dropped my hand, which by this time was only hovering over the bowl’s rim.  And with the bowl balanced freely on my head we shook left hands, which is a parting greeting in Senegal that signifies friendship.

In Wolof, the word for foreigner is “Toubab”, and as a white person in Senegal, I hear that word much more than I would like to, especially from kids.  I’ve been told that no other white person has ever stayed in Ndande (at least in the lifetimes of the people that have told me this), so for many of the children of Ndande, I was probably the first white person they had ever seen. Even now, though I’ve been here for a while, when I walk down the street, particularly if I’m far away from my house and not as many people know my Senegalese name, groups of kids will gather and say, “Toubab!  Toubab! Toubab!” as I pass.  It’s not meant to be offensive, and the kids do it mostly because I’m interesting and different and they like pointing that out.  So when I started working at the preschool, it took a lot of practice for the preschoolers to not call me “Toubab” and instead, as they were instructed by their teachers, call me “Tata Adja”, which means “Auntie Adja” or “Miss Adja”.  But now they all know my proper name and call me Tata Adja without fail.  One day, when I was walking home from my Wolof lesson on the other side of the village, I heard kids in the distance yelling “Toubab” and, as usual, I ignored them and kept walking.  But then I heard something that made my heart soar.  I heard a small but fierce voice say, “No!  Don’t call her Toubab!  Her name is Tata Adja!”, and I turned around to see one of the little girls from the preschool smiling and waving at me from the crowd of kids.

Another highlight of the preschool has been seeing the adorable and highly inventive mode of transportation that the preschoolers take to and from school.  In Ndande, cars are very rarely driven, but there is an abundance of people who drive carts called charettes pulled by horses or donkeys and can shuttle people around the village.  One such charette has been designated as a school bus of sorts for the preschoolers, and whereas with the other charettes the passengers sit only on a flat plank of wood, the preschool charette also has boards on the sides so that 15+ preschooler plus a few teachers can all pack in and be secure.  The driver of the charette knows exactly where every preschooler lives and steers the horse on a perfectly mapped-out course around the village, and at every stop takes each preschooler off who lives nearby.  It’s very cute and the kids have so much fun riding on the charette every day.

Aly Counsell