Naka laa tudd? Call me Moustapha.

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


October 16, 2010

When I wake up in the morning the first sound I hear is the comforting hum of the fan, my indestructible line of defense against mosquitos and sweat baths at night, as long as the power is on. Next my ears tune to the roosters next door that act as the alarm clock I cannot set to “snooze,” as well as to the two bleating goats that live only feet away on the roof of my homestay in Mermoz (photo 1). Finally my yaay, Ngoné, the large and loving mother who rules the house with an iron fist, calls to me from the kitchen below, “Moustaaaaapha? Moustaaaaapha? Bien dormir? Jamm nga fanan?” (Note: please forgive spelling and grammar in foreign languages. I am new at this.)

Man am naa turu wolof, ma né, ñëw naa—I have a Wolof name, I say, I have arrived. I cannot describe in any amount of blog posts the endless adventures that overwhelm and fulfill me every day in this amazing, strange, welcoming place. My communication is limited to a handful of mix-and-match “Frolof” phrases and a repertoire of rather humorous charades, and anyone able to discern the color of my skin can immediately recognize me as a tubab. Nonetheless, I am making friends, including several teenagers at the local basketball court and a twenty-one-year-old butcher named Mori (photo 2) who works near the ACI Baobab center. The swarm of befuddled looks thrown my direction as I walk through Mermoz has been replaced by smiles of bonjour and bonsoir, though the taxi drivers still honk at me, hoping to grab a young American passenger willing to pay 4 times the going rate for a ride.
[slidepress gallery=’gus-ruchman-numero-uno’]

I am not in my comfort zone. Despite my eating and sleeping relatively well, the pangs of hunger and fatigue are routine. The next cold shower (if the water is on, en sh’allah) is always on my mind, and I have an entirely new appreciation for both toilet paper and washing machines. Coming to grips with being perpetually inarticulate has been frustrating and enlightening; learning how to time my dashes across the freeway in the morning when traffic is heavy has been exhilirating.

In spite of the stark change in lifestyle, I feel constantly liberated and renewed. Though this country upsets as often as it delights, I am on my way to calling it home. I had read about teranga, the mindset and practice of Senegalese community and hospitality, but experiencing it firsthand has been otherworldly. My favorite moment of the day is walking through the door of the maison at lunchtime to be greeted by my family, eager to find out with which new friends, neighbors, and guests I will be eating around the bowl. The joy is in the sharing, though my mother’s culinary talents (photo 3) do not go unappreciated. Teranga turned aggressive several days ago when, despite my best efforts to explain that I wanted to wait for the rest of the family before digging in, my mother grabbed my wrist and forced my spoon into the communal rice.

I had a linguistic epiphany of sorts during yesterday’s Wolof session. It seems that while American language and culture emphasize action and individual doing, a multitude of bustle and momentum, Wolof sketches people and situations through states of being, a more passive, though not necessarily less effective, approach to finding oneself and family content and alive at the end of the day. Grammatically and psychologically I am struggling with this ethos, but I take comfort in the fact that the Wolof verb for hearing or understanding—dégg—is eerily similar to the word for truth—dëgg. I get the elusive feeling that with time, as I become totally enveloped by the language, sounds, and energy of Senegal, I may eventually begin to understand the mindset deep at the core of the culture and community.

Gus Ruchman