Meet the Family

Elston Tortuga - Senegal


November 3, 2014

My immediate family consists of my mom, Sokhna Deme, president of the Ngueniene Women’s Association, a woman unable to have her own children, a woman married to a slowly dying man 30 years her senior, who lives an hour away with his first wife and children; she is a strong, noble woman, a woman who knows how to joke around every once in a while.

Two months ago, this description would have brought to my mind quiet dinners for two, in the midst of intimate discussion in a small apartment, like a scene from Gilmore Girls.

The reality could not be more different. I live in a large, sandy compound, shaded by six unique trees1. We live with four other moms, related in one way or another, their children, and the donated children of other family members. Long story short, we have to prepare two large metal bowls of Ceebu Djen (rice and fish) to accommodate the 15-20 people that are bound to be home for lunch.

But my family isn’t limited to the concrete walls of our compound. Each day, I walk the five minutes to my grandma’s2 house, where another 20 or so family members live. There, I greet everyone and spend time solving puzzles3 that my Tonton Abdoulaye throws my way, or listening to folk tales in French that I only half understand.

The way Abdoulaye treats me – endearing mockery, unconditional positive regard – he may as well be my father. Family is central here, but the lines of the nuclear family are entirely blurred. Tata (Aunt) Hadibb is just as likely to be carrying her 13-month-old Mame Diarra in a sling on her back as her sister Mareme is, or even my ten year old cousin Ami. It took me two weeks to figure out that Pape Deme (the only man who resides in our compound) is Maimouna’s husband, and after a month of living here, I still haven’t assigned all the children to parents.

“People are people’s best medicine.” It was with this Wolof proverb that my mom dragged my dizzy, achy, food poisoned self outside to steep in the healing powers of being with people. It is this principle that guides the molasses pace of life here, in which the mere company of another person is the most valued activity.

And Senegalese life is slow; just being truly is one of the most popular activities, but there is nothing quiet about it. Certainly nothing solitary. Most every moment is spent cutting onions with an aunt, practicing Wolof (the native language) with a cousin, or entertaining a baby (Mame Diarra, a 13-month-old, dances on command). Here, introversion is a foreign concept, as close to entering the Wolof lexicon as “gluten-free.”

Even as I’m writing this, Khodu and Momodou who are five year olds, surround me, jabbing at my computer, wiping dust off the screen with sticky fingers, begging me to put on a movie, asking me if I’m tired, practicing our secret handshake.

I only just met these people one and a half months ago, but already they have shaped me enormously. They are raising me from Senegalese infancy to adulthood. Six weeks ago, I spoke barely any Wolof. Now I can carry on short conversations in this still very strange tongue and successfully communicate my basic needs. I no longer get ripped off buying bananas at the weekly loumah, open air market. Six weeks ago, I hesitated to leave the confines of our compound alone. Now, I can comfortably navigate the car rapides, mini buses jam-packed with people that take me the 30 minutes to Joal (the nearest city) for 400 CFA ($.80).

I’m walking now, the clumsy walk of an infant who just discovered balance but is still all too familiar with the laws of gravity. I have a long way to go before I can call myself a Senegalese adult, but without a doubt, my family will be there to witness every step.

1 One of these trees is an orange tree. The oranges are verte (green) right now, and sometimes we cut one down with a rake and use it as a lime for our evening mbaxal, a porridge of rice, dry fish, and beans.

2 I inherited my Senegalese name Coumba Fall Nian from my great grandmother, and every time I visit my grandma, she smiles her wide, toothless smile exclaiming Sama yay, or “my mom,” gesturing to her breast and declaring dama xiif, “I’m hungry,” laughing hysterically as I call her sama domu bu jiggen, “my baby girl.”

3 He promised to organize a car for me in America for solving this one:

Place the numbers 1-9 into individual boxes in a three by three square so that when three numbers are added together horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, the sum is always 15.

Elston Tortuga