Ndanke Ndanke

Elise Leise - Senegal


January 15, 2018

After shelling a requisite amount of peanuts with the women of the compound, I found Dé Maraam behind a tin-roofed hut, sitting in the shade and chatting with a grandmother about the weather. As the village chief’s widow, she held respect and authority throughout Bapate and was the woman I needed to speak with about my upcoming community project. Intimidating, but friendly. Despite my failure to pronounce her name just right, she forgave me, handing me a small plastic bag of créme bissap while asking about the health of my mother, father, countless siblings, and my sweet, quite fragile grandfather. We spoke for a while about family and the weather and mutual acquaintances while other women gradually joined us, pulling metal chairs into a semi-circle. 
 
Buundi, my unemployed uncle who can sit and teach me Laala for hours, appeared, pen and paper in hand to document the meeting details. Ten minutes and twenty women later, I was under the impression I had accidentally become a part of the monthly ritual of money allocation. Awesome, I thought. This was going to be interesting. 
 
Then Bundi glanced over at me.
“Se miin ka tambal, Mame Dome. Fu waarin ka watan na grupmuni; boy sukarukin.” 
We can begin. You wanted to speak with the women’s group; we’re listening.
 
Okay. Deep breath. I was running the meeting. 
 
But I was more surprised by how I felt. I wasn’t shaking, sweating profusely, or scouting out the quickest escape route. This unexpected development wasn’t pushing me into a nervous panic zone; if anything, I was prepared from months of Senegal teaching me how to be okay with life’s mishaps.
 
What struck me most strongly was the normalcy of it all. 
 
Looking at the women in front of me, I saw not strangers, but a collection of neighbors who know me by name; women who make up a community I’m grateful to call home. I recognized Dé Elé, my “mother of the bitika” who sells me my libaa of bread every day and Dé Jeann, who teases me for not celebrating my birthday with her, and my caaca (grandma) whom I visit at the vegetable market on my way to school. 
 
More than a couple phrases  contained a grammatical error, I’m sure. We laughed at communication limits occasionally, and there was one offer to translate everything into English from a woman who only knew how to say hello. Yet I didn’t experience the all-too-familiar feeling of grasping for words I didn’t have that defined the first months of living in my community. 
 
I spoke with a a vocabulary built from hours and days and months of cooking with my sisters and awkward small talk during marriage celebrations; long afternoons spent attempting to help my siblings with their homework; nights passed listening to conversation flow around me while slowly decoding the meaning. 
 
Many of those little learning moments went by unnoticed. September, October, November came and went filled with successes and failures and days where no progress seemed to be made, which was maybe one of the most important experiences of all. One plane flight to a foreign country, although it changed the nature of my everyday reality, didn’t immediately shape me into a more resilient, empathetic, mature young woman. Nor was I automatically fluent in a new language or adept at navigating a different set of cultural norms. It happened ndanke ndanke — Wolof for slowly slowly.
 
This limbo of not always making visible progress while simultaneouly being unable to abandon the situation is one I needed to have, one that will stick with me throughout my life as a reminder that true change takes time. 
 
And as my understanding of personal growth deepens, so does my perception of change on a global scale. Global change will never happen overnight, especially when we search for the underlying causes beneath seemingly uncomplicated issues; underlying causes that exist at the intersections rather than obediently staying within separate fields of knowledge. An educational roadblock like school attendance in my community is dependent on medical care, financial stability, transportation systems, and for young women, access to birth control. There is no Band-Aid fix. 
 
So what do we do? There are those who counsel hands-off approaches. I disagree. My eyes are opening to complexity, but it doesn’t make me want to leave the problems as they are. Instead, it compels me to denounce the coping mechanism of resignation. I can’t wait to start college. After living surrounded by complex issues, I want desperately to equip myself with the knowledge and ability to catalyze responsible, authentic change.
 
We live in a world filled with political nationalism, women’s rights issues, immigration reform battles; in a world where deadly diseases still exist, climate change affects our forests and oceans, and injustice exists from our prison systems to our foreign aid policies. These problems were never meant to be simple. Back away because it’s hard? 
I hope to be part of a generation that refuses to give up so easily. 
 
The real question isn’t whether change is going to be difficult. It’s whether we can be aware of the messy complexities and still have the urge to try. This is the critical tipping point. As frustrating and unglamorous as it might be, continuous, educated effort is the only way to create real, lasting impact. 
 
We could step back; refuse to step into the arena because we’re afraid we’ll fail. We could focus on solving the surface level issues by becoming more and more politically correct and backing away from the uncomfortable work of confronting causes and the history behind them.
 
Or we can choose to risk failure, but risk it for the promise of ndanke ndanke change. 
 
Slow, messy, complicated, frustrating, mixed-up, complex, intentional, informed, inclusive, rewarding change. 
 
Which will you choose?
 
 
 

 

 

Elise Leise