Let me introduce Ibrahima Njaay

Johannes Raatz - Senegal


January 14, 2011

This morning he wakes up at six o’clock, while it is still dark, just before the morning prayer call. Once prayers are over, he eats breakfast; he always eats on a mat, above the endless, sandy ground. Twenty centimeters of baguette and a cup of sweet coffee from a plastic cup is the daily morning ration.

Before seven o’clock strikes, the horse is hitched to the wagon; with pitchforks and jerrycans of water, Ibrahima and eight other family members head out for their field. After a half hour ride southwest of the village it is time to collect the countless, small, uprooted piles of peanut stocks and build mountains eight feet tall and just as wide in diameter.

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During the ride out to the field, the sun looks friendly and transparent, but it quickly becomes menacing. As his shadow retreats and recoils under its owner, Ibrahima struggles against the thorns piercing his garments, the heat and dust. Each time an armful of yield is thrown atop, the pile coughs dark clouds of dust.

Shortly after twelve, the field is bare; only brown heaps are left, scattering the land. Hot, hungry and tired, the exhausted and parched workers cram atop the cart and are slowly pulled back to the village. The driver flogs the small horse more often on the ride home; everyone wants to escape the sun, eat and then nap.

Ibrahima eats rice and fish with his family around bowls on the ground, in a fashion much like breakfast. He only counts twenty-two huddled around the three large dishes. A few are missing, never mind who. He pulls red rice and white cabbage from his wedge of the shared meal, shapes the food into a ball with his right hand and pushes it into his mouth.

Satisfied, Ibrahima leaves the bowl to shower. There’s a tap for water, but no shower-head in the rather large, bare, concrete shower room. Using a bucket he scoops water using a cup onto his body, wiping the dust, sweat and remaining thorns from his body. Needing relief, he puts on cleaner clothes and lies down in the shade to nap away the midday heat.

On waking, Ibrahima sits with many of the other family members peeling bisap, a flower of the hibiscus family. This is easy, social work and Ibrahima is happy to sit, remaining cool, chatting the early evening away. Life is a team effort here; everyone from small children to the eldest, that being Ibrahima’s father, Douda, the village chief, are active in supporting this activity. The flowers, peeled away from their stocks, will soon be taken to market to be sold to be made into juice or used in cooking.

The sandy ground cools quickly as the sun passes behind the property’s few trees. As time draws close to dinner, Ibrahima again grows hungry and tired, but feels happy. He is content having succeeded in conquering the day’s work. Surrounded by his large family, he feels connected.

The twist here is that, I, Johannes Raatz, am Ibrahima Njaay. Or, at least, I’m striving to be. The transition to an exceedingly distinct life demands a new, equally distinct identity. I must rehearse the role of “Ibrahima Njaay” every day, until I know all my lines. Hopefully, in a few months I will be able to take off the mask that suggests I am Ibrahima; and find that below it, Ibrahima’s flesh and bone is real, living on it’s own.

Johannes Raatz