Introducing Assa

Hi, my name is Assa Ndiaye. I am the namesake, or turëndo, of my host papa’s mother, who passed away 6 years ago. I also share this name with one of my older sisters, so as you can imagine this leads to much confusion at times. I was given this name when I met my family for the first time back in September. So much has happened since. 

I live in the town of Tivaouane. (Pronounced Tee-wa-wuan) It is known for its strong religious ties, grand mosques, fútbol stadium, and plentiful markets. The population is around 35,000, large by Senegalese standards. I live in a neighborhood, or koñ, called Ndoutt. Here in Senegal, your last name and koñ are one of the very first things people ask about you when you first meet. Your koñ is especially important during fútbol season, where the local neighborhood teams compete to represent Tivaouane in the regionals. After big games, crowds linger around the stadium where those from the winning neighborhood chase around those from the losing. The next day, you can expect to wake up to fresh graffiti plastered all over town. Friendly rivalry and koñ pride is practically palpable in the air. (Ndoutt forever, baby!)

As for your last name, it tells an entire story from the origins of your family to your supposed eating habits, which your “joking cousins” will use against you each and every time you converse. Joking cousins are people who have the “right” to joke with you because of your name relationship. Some people have only one while others can have up to three or more. Who your joking cousins are depends on your own last name so for example, Diop’s are the joking cousins of Ndiaye’s. Each time I meet a Diop anywhere in Senegal, we engage in playful banter where light insults are exchanged back and forth!

The Ndiaye family is an ever changing and growing network of siblings, aunts and uncles, family friends, neighbors, and somehow-related-to-me cousins. When I received my site and family placement information in August, I was told I would have just one 19 year old sister. Upon arriving at my new home for 7 months, I quickly learned this was not going to be the case. I actually had two sisters in the house with me, Mounas, 19 and Rama, 25, as well as my two parents and aunt, who I thought was my grandmother for the longest time.My brother Diebel, 30, is also over at least five times a day and brings with him his two best friends everywhere he goes. My father’s nephew's daughter (say that five times fast!) Fama, was 2 1/2 years old when she arrived to live with us for 1 month that somehow turned into 4, just one week after me. She was one of my best friends, especially after both my sisters left for university in late November, and I was devastated when her stay ended. 

Though I feel the absence of my sisters and Fama, my house is still far from small with two family friends that will be living here for the school year, Fatamata who is 20 and M’eissa who is 13! Fatamata and I travel to the high school together in the mornings and M’eissa and I constantly compete to see who is the Ultimate Uno Champion. Those two practically feel like siblings at this point. I also can’t forget to mention the other two houses in my compound where my aunties, cousins, and their babies live. Sedena who was not even one year old and just learning to crawl when I first arrived is now running and dancing. He now knows how to request for water, scream “baay!”, or stop, when he doesn’t like something, and demand for me to open the door to my room with his tiny but confident voice chanting, “Assa, ubi!” He may even know more Wolof than me at this point! His growth serves as a constant reminder of how long I have been here and how much I’ve grown as well. Just down the block on each side live even more relatives that I am still getting to know with every new day. My family is so large, intense, loving, and beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. 

I have two apprenticeships, one at a tailoring shop located within an artisanal plaza where two other fellows and I learn how to make clothing from local fabrics, and one in a high school where I assist my supervisor in his English classes. Each morning for 2-4 hours, 6 days a week, I spend my time at these places. Tailoring is one of my favorite hobbies now, especially since I got over my fear of those scary, finger-poking machines! So far I have made three shirts, two bags, a skirt, and three pairs of pants. The science of taking measurements and mapping them out, to cutting the patterns and sewing them all together in the right order, and finally seeing the piece finished is one of the most rewarding things. 

My educational apprenticeship is a humbling experience in the sense that I am lost a good amount of the time. Having grown up with English as one of my first languages, I have not had to think about present perfect, past continuous, and all those other grammatical quirks in my day to day life. I honestly feel like I’m learning alongside the students when I sit in on classes! I typically work with my supervisor to plan activities relating to the day’s topic which I will then assist him in leading. Some of my favorite things to do with the students are facilitate debates and teach grammar games. 

Since my apprenticeship is within a high school, I almost feel like I’m being transported back in time when I am there, seeing the cliques lingering in the halls before class begins and taking the bus home each day. I also get a glimpse from the perspective of a teacher, watching students as they whisper the latest gossip throughout class, or help each other cheat through not-so-secret codes, and of course the eyes that are constantly on me. Being in front of a classroom of 60 high schoolers who are all the same age, or older than me is quite daunting to say the least. Teaching is far from easy and I have gained an even greater appreciation for educators, especially the ones I have had the pleasure in personally knowing. 

I also feel the need to mention that going to school each morning feels like I am in a Fast and Furious movie, specifically with Tokyo Drift playing in the background. I usually take a shared car where 2 people are squeezed in the shotgun seat and 4 or more in the back. As we make our way down the road, students on foot, horse, motorcycle, bus, bike….basically any form of transport you can think of are also rushing and racing their way towards the school before the first bell. I love it. 

As we enter February, I have just under 2 months left in Tivaouane. These past 5 months have been some of the hardest, mentally taxing months of my life. They have also been the most influential, comfort zone stretching, love filled times as well. I have met some of my favorite human beings on Earth here. I have travelled from one end of the country to the other with a handful of those people. I have hiked across deserts and mountains; and swam in countless beaches; a freezing, remote waterfall; and the River Gambie where hippos and crocodiles reside. I have learned to cook my family’s favorite dishes and wash my laundry by hand. I have gone to ngentes, or naming ceremonies, and celebrations of life from dawn till dusk; as well as weddings and talent competitions from dusk till dawn. l have mastered the art of setting up a sewing machine and hailing taxis without being ripped off, or at least I’d like to think so. I have had hilariously interesting conversations in Wolof, the local language, and taught my siblings bits and pieces of Mandarin. I have no idea what these next 2 months will have in store for me, and I sure have no idea how I will be able to leave in April, but I am excited to meet the Assa Ndiaye that I will become. 

*This is me back in November, wearing a dress gifted to me by my host family that my good friend, Ablai, tailored for me. He is so talented!

**Please note that I am only representing my own experiences here in Senegal. I am not an expert on the culture, history, or social-political dynamics of this country, or even my town. I am simply living here for 7 months and trying to take in and learn as much as I can. My perspective and outlook are also constantly morphing and I doubt it will cease to continue shaping itself, even after I leave. If you want to know more about this journey, subscribe & stay tuned for more blogs that will hopefully give you a glimpse into my life; or find me in person once I’m back! I will be happy to share my stories with you. 🙂 Until next time!

***Lastly, this blog is dedicated to the best team leader one could ask for: Sam. Sorry it took so long for me to upload this; the words had to come to me. I promise there are more to come…and soon!