On Being Helpless

Eli Chanoff - Senegal


March 5, 2014

My first night living in the small Senegalese town of Pire Goureye I wandered through the sandy streets for several hours with my brothers acting as tour guides. They showed me the market which, closed for the day, was a series of empty stalls erected from tree branches, plywood and corrugated tin. We visited my brother’s places of business: one small gym and two game rooms–15×15 concrete rooms with a few televisions and playstation 2′s each. We went across the street from the gym to see my host mom at the maternity ward where she works. My town has two beautiful mosques, whose towers are by far the tallest structures in all of Pire Goureye, and we stopped at their gates long enough for my brothers to explain that I am never to enter, being that I am not a muslim. But the feature of my town that repeatedly caught my eye was the multitude of horse-drawn carts and carriages. I had seen plenty during the month I spent in Dakar before moving to Pire, but there they were the minority. Here they far outnumber the cars. In the beginning of my stay I couldn’t help but focus on the things that set Senegal apart from the US. Squat toilets are on that list, as is the prevalence of mosques, and definitely the use of horses as a primary mode of transportation. I thought them so quaint, even poetic. My brother must have noticed my eyes following every horse-drawn vehicle that we passed because towards the end of the night he asked if I would like to ride one. I gave a big nod and said “yes” in a tone that would lead no listener to believe I was impartial on the matter. “Absolutely,” I followed up, “no question”, though I’m sure my brothers understood neither phrase. I giggled climbing onto the wooden bench much as a small child would if offered a ride on the back of a dinosaur.

My brother, two feet firmly on the ground, put his arms out in front of him, elbows bent to 90˚, fists clenched with a slight tremor: the universal signal for ‘hold on tight’. I frowned and put a noncommittal grip on the side of my seat, and then I very nearly fell off of it when the horse started moving. Again like a child on a dinosaur, I quickly realized that I much prefer the fantasy to the reality. This first ride, and every ride since, has shaken me to the bones. My fingers turned white trying to keep me in place, and my gluteus muscles got quite a work out from the necessary clenching. After about fifty feet I told the man controlling the horse to let me off.

This was my first taste of incompetence in Senegal. Young children and old women balancing large bags of rice on their heads can sit on a horse drawn cart without difficulty. I cannot.

I’ve had to accept that, while here, I am not a very capable example of a person. One could fairly compare me to my four year old host brother in terms of what I’m able to do on my own (though even he is a much better dancer). My speaking range in Wolof is limited, I have to recruit small children as guides whenever I want to go somewhere without getting lost, and every day my brothers tell me about a new cultural norm that I’ve inappropriately broken. I refuse to wrestle or play soccer (the two primary Senegalese sports) with anyone above the age of 12 because 12 is the age at which most people surpass me in athletic ability. This may make me sound like a sore loser but, really, I’ve been bested by enough preteens for a lifetime. I drop bits of food all over the place whenever I try to eat with my hands, it takes me twice as long to set up my mosquito net as anyone else in my family, and even going outside is difficult due to my unique lack of melanin.

Perhaps the most visible area of my incompetence is in farming. While here in Senegal I’m doing an apprenticeship in agriculture, and so far it has consisted of harvesting groundnut for several hours each morning on my host-cousin’s groundnut farm. My incompetence here is so omnipresent and multifaceted that I’ve decided to break it down into the following three sections: The Commute, The Work, and The Aftermath.

The Commute

As luck would have it, I left my house at 7 AM for my first day on the farm to discover that we–myself and whichever host cousins are coming to the farm that day–make our commute on a horse drawn cart. More accurately, we make our commute on a horse drawn wooden platform with wheels–this vehicle does not have the luxurious seats or bannisters that kept me in place my first time riding something pulled by a horse. To makes things more precarious, we do not travel on paved roads as I did on that cakewalk that I now recognize my first ride to be. We travel on dirt paths, and sometimes over the fields themselves, which are ribbed by plowed earth. My butt has been bruised for over a month now at the point of contact with the wooden platform. One silver lining the hardcore optimist in me has found is that my hands get stronger every day–a result of the continuous vice-grip I apply to whatever my fingers happen to find: the platform, a friend’s arm, the horse’s tail. And while I’m scrambling to stay in place I look over and see my nine year old cousins circling each other on their knees, trying to gain a positional advantage in a horse-drawn wrestling match. Another boy is squatting on the balls of his feet, one hand holding a plastic cup, the other carefully tilting our hefty water jug to fill his cup without spilling–a process I have trouble with on the ground. My older cousin has the horse’s reins in his left hand; with his right he slides the back off of his cell phone, removes the battery and digs around for the sim card, an article no bigger than his pinky nail. When he finds it he snaps off some of it’s length, produces another cell phone and pushes the modified sim card into its side.

Sometimes, usually on days when my work was particularly poor (see The Work section below), it’s my job to drive. My incompetence in driving is made more embarrassing by the attention I attract, being the first white person anyone has seen in this position. Now, after a month of practice, I think I represent my race with some dignity. But the first few times I simply could not get the horse to move. A crowd of laughing school children gathered as I shouted “Alli! Alli!”, the ‘move forward’ command word, and gave halfhearted whips to the horse’s side, quietly apologizing each time. Eventually my cousin grabbed the reins from my hands and said what has become a very familiar Wolof phrase.

Yambar nga”

‘Yambar nga ci ______’ means ‘you suck at ______’. This is not to be conflated with “manoo” (mon-oh) which means ‘you can’t’ or ‘xamoo‘ (kham-oh) which means ‘you don’t know how’. ‘Yambar‘ is an insult besides being a factual declaration of incompetence. I should add here that, while accurate, people only call me ‘yambar‘ in good fun. There is no anger on their end, nor intent to incite anger on my end. That said, I’ve been called a ‘yambar‘ in just about everything I do.

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The Work

So far, work on the groundnut fields has consisted of pulling the mature plants out of the ground and organizing the harvest into a series of piles. Two people work to upturn each row of stalks: one person leads the horse, which pulls the heavy plow, while another person guides the plow’s metal hook on the proper path through the soil. I line up with the other cousins along the length of the field and pull the plants from the loosened earth when the plow goes past.

The first problem is the sun. My eastern European heritage does not set me up well for long hours of manual labor in the sub-saharan sun. No matter how thoroughly I apply my sunscreen I end up with a new burn somewhere. The tops of my feet before the toes look like bizarre flags: three different tones and two different tan lines corresponding to my two pairs of sandals. My workmates generally break a sweat around 11 AM when the sun is high in the sky and we’ve been harvesting for a few hours. I myself am damp in the shirt by the time we arrive at the field, a result of the exhausting effort I described in The Commute, and am absolutely drenched within a half hour once we start picking.

The second problem is xaxam. Xaxam (kha-kham) is a prolific grass that produces insidious, needle-sharp burs. We have burs in the US that find their way into clothing; they are annoying at worst. If you touch xaxam with the slightest amount of pressure it will become lodged in your skin. Removing xaxam generally results in the xaxam simply transferring from its original location to the tip of either my thumb or forefinger, those being the primary pinching fingers. In addition, the burs are barbed, so if I’m not careful a tiny piece will break off and stay in the skin (I might add that I forgot to bring tweezers to Senegal and none are available for purchase in my town). If I do successfully take thexaxam out, my skin spots with blood. When I say that the xaxam is prolific I mean that it is invasive and that, in some places, it makes up a majority of the plant life. It is also taller than the groundnut stalks. In some sections of the field I reach through thickxaxam to access the occasional groundnut. “Why don’t you just use gloves?” a reader might ask. Well, we do have one pair of gloves that we pass around throughout the day. But they have holes in the palms, and besides, the main problem is xaxam sticking to feet. Hundreds of burs accumulate on the bottoms of my flip flops, and as their numbers increase they are pushed onto the sides and eventually to top. “Why don’t you wear more protective footwear?” a reader might follow up. Well, I did once, and ended up working barefoot because the shoes were entirely covered within minutes. I mean saturated inxaxam. I still haven’t been able to get them off.

The sun and xaxam make work universally difficult: they don’t only effect me. But one tenet of Senegalese culture is working without complaint despite obstacles. This manifests in the form of a whole system of machismo around the work. I hear the younger boys saying (in Wolof), “I’m not scared of xaxam!” “Yes you are, It’s me who is not scared of xaxam!” Besides an increased motivation to be resilient, everyone is better than me at farming because they have more practice. Either way, every day I find myself lagging far behind the other people on the field. I often have an eight year old boy assigned to help me catch up. And when the people working the plow pass by they greet me by saying, “Eli, yambar nga” or “nyakk” which just means “sweat”.

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The Aftermath

The following is the most enjoyable result of my incompetence. After a day on the farm I return to my cousin’s compound and sit with the family, snacking on our harvest. In the first few weeks, when I spoke no Wolof at all, the conversation was limited to everyone telling me to repeat various phrases. First it was things like “Yambar naa ci bey tool”, meaning: “I suck at farming”. When we got to be more comfortable with each other, my Senegalese male friends and family had me unknowingly shouting “Nice ass,” “vagina,” (many different words for “vagina”), and “butt hole” at the top of my lungs.

I’ve concluded that my time in Senegal is not about gaining competence in these areas, but rather about being comfortable with my incompetence. More important than being a good farmer is my ability to recognize that I am a bad farmer. More important than avoiding laughter is realizing that there are much worse things than being laughed at. It boils down to gaining the sense of humility that only being helpless can teach.

Eli Chanoff