Leaves on the Family Tree

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


November 1, 2010

For the fourth time this year, I am leaving my family. At the end of May, in a whirlpool of handshakes and diplomas, I parted ways with my extended high school family of teachers, mentors, fellow graduates, and yes, even freshmen. In mid-September I shared one final hug with my parents at La Guardia airport, walking through security with my mother’s tears still damp on one shoulder and guitar slung over the other, carrying heaviest of all in my heart the well-wishes of friends and relatives from across the nation and the world.

After comfortably settling in to the meditative yet intensive lifestyle of the US Training Institute in Petaluma, I found myself abruptly dragged away from a novel set of GCY siblings bound for the far side of the globe. Now I am saying au revoir once more as my Senegalese mother departs for the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and I prepare to leave the now somewhat familiar routine of chez Gaye for a new family of unknown name and residence in Sangalkam. This is not an experience to which I ever want to grow accustomed. I never want goodbyes to feel easy. It is no coincidence that only a few nights ago I watched a young woman sing on the television that classic Cole Porter tune, “every time we say goodbye, I die a little….”

As I understand it, there is no single Wolof word for “family.” Instead, the Senegalese use the phrase waa kër, literally translating as “inhabitants of the house,” to describe their loved ones. This pairing fits neatly into Senegal’s social jigsaw puzzle; since often many relatives live under the same roof, it is practical to refer to the entire family as the residents of the house. In the mindset of teranga, guests too should be lumped in to the encompassing contraction.

As I bid farewell to my yaay and thanked her for truly everything, she reminded me that the hospitality I have experienced is normal—I am Moustapha Gaye, a Senegalese, her son. Furthermore, the concept of waa kër seems not to be temporally limited. I have become a permanent part of the greater sense of the home and will remain a Gaye even after I leave the physical space in Mermoz.

Perhaps this is a basic lesson in family that I had taken for granted and never truly appreciated. Family only grows, like a yearning Baobab tree stretching its thick branches broadly and proudly, offering a magnificent ladder to the sky for those who trust and dare to climb it, for those who tend the soil on which it flourishes. Rather than leaving, I am building a home with a roof that bridges the mighty Atlantic, born by pillars of clay in Connecticut, California, and Senegal.

Today I am a Ruchman and I am a Gaye. Who knows what I will become tomorrow? I will tell you from the next branch of the mighty Baobab tree.

Please enjoy the slideshow of select photos from my Global Citizen Year thus far! Jamm ak jamm.

[slidepress gallery=’gus-ruchman-2′]

Gus Ruchman