I’ve always been captivated by stories of the green tomato South. The ones where white babies are raised by loving, cheeky black nannies. And even though they face great oppression, everyone sits around laughing and eating banana pudding. Who wouldn’t want that?
I think what really draws me in to those stories is just how powerful the black characters are. These women spend their lives raising children that aren’t their own, cleaning other peoples’ houses, cooking meals they don’t eat, etc. And they do so with a strength and grace that makes it look easy.
When I arrived in Kebemer on that rainy day in October, the first thing I noticed was that the living room was filled with women. Ages two to seventy two, all shades of brown, it was hard to not feel completely intimidated by this group. It didn’t help that most of them were tall, curvy, and were dressed immaculately while I was wearing a measly t-shirt and pagne, my hair smelling like a wet dog from the storm.
In the 5 months I’ve been living here I’ve witnessed the ferocity and compassion that Senegalese women embody. In one moment they’re laughing and dancing with you and the next they toss you a look that cuts you down to a tiny speck. They also work harder than any man I know. Much like the black women of the storied South, my sisters, mom, and aunt work all day cooking, caring for the children, and scrubbing the compound to my Maam’s standards, all while having jobs or school work on top of that.
But the real hidden gem of Senegalese women, the one you have to search for, but is surprisingly easy to reach, is their capacity to love unconditionally. One might say it’s hard to find because the Wolof aren’t the most affectionate people, but I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s right on the surface, you just have to be looking for it. From the way that Awa pulls me out of my room to go lay down and talk, or how Alima gives me a thumbs up after tasting the ceeb I helped her make, the way Bebe speaks slowly and gently to ensure I understand, or when Arame says she’s going to cry when I leave in April, I know I am loved.
I may not have a lovable black nanny to feed me fried chicken and collards, but I have something better. I have my very own tribe of African mothers who are always watching out for me, laughing at my mistakes, holding my hand, and force feeding me ceebu jen. And no blue ribbon cornbread tastes as good as that feels.