Maam Awa

Madeleine Balchan - Senegal


February 22, 2011

The wrinkles on her face rearrange themselves into a smile as Maam Awa, my 90+-year-old grandmother, extends her hand to greet me. She repeats my last name, Diaw, and I say her’s, Sec.

“Did you pass your day in peace?” she asks.

“Peace only.” I respond.

“Where are the people who live at your house?” She continues the standard greetings.

“I think they’re at home, I actually haven’t been there since this morning. Where are the people of your house?”

“They’re here” she says.

I look around the empty courtyard, back at her and jokingly say “WHERE? I don’t see them!”

She’s often accompanied by a friend of two years old or younger. When the women go to the fields or market Maam watches their kids. My siblings scream and run and pester and poke all day long at home. But in the presence of Maam they fall silent and peaceful. She takes her naps with 3 month old Siireh, patting his butt affectionately.

“Bintu’s in her room…the others went to Baay Sier’s house.”

“What did you do today?” I ask her.

“Man amul ngerine.” (I’m incapable of doing anything.)

“Waaw amnga ngerine bu bax! Xolal, kan xalee bi new-na, gis ngeen maam am, noon noppu, noon joyul, noon beg-ngeen maam am! You men na def nip! Jambar nga!”

“You do a lot! When the kids come here, see their Maam, they don’t scream, they quiet down, and they’re calm! They love their Maam. You can do everything. You’re awesome!”

“But I didn’t do anything today. I want to go to Baay Sier’s house tomorrow.”

“So do it. You do, and I’ll come back tomorrow and you can tell me all about it.”

She wiped a tear from her eye as she agreed. “Waaw. Bax na kay, bax na.”

“No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn’t know it.” – Paulo Coehlo

Maam Awa Part 2

When Maam was born over 90 years ago the estimated life expectancy was 25 years (according to gapminder). She’s seen more in her lifetime than I can begin to imagine: growing up with colonization, the full life-span of democracy in Senegal and the arrival of electricity to her village in 2006. She’s living history, ready to share her stories, patient with me as I try to decipher her quick and mumbled Wolof.

I was trying to ask her about her about what she did before they had matches in the village.  “so when you were a kid-“ and she cut me off and said “I was never a kid” We laughed, but I continued the questioning process…I didn’t know the wolof word for matches, so I finally said “before gas (the propane tanks they use as ovens)” and she said “gas new na barki demb” “we got gas the day before yesterday.” After a half hour I discovered that back then firewood was plentiful. The flat planes with occasional trees in the seven kilometers between Leona, our village, and Potou, was once a forest.They kept a flame continuously. If their fire went out, they walked to a neighboring village and brought back a torch.

I couldn’t resist asking the Ape from Jungle Book question – what’s the secret to fire? “Well what if the other villages lost their fire too?” Maam laughed and told me she had no clue.

Madeleine Balchan