Nene Penda

Jackson Harris - Senegal


February 12, 2016

If you’ve ever climbed a mountain in foam flip flops, a dress, with a baby on your back, and a sack of corn balanced on your head, you probably haven’t made it look as easy as my host mom made it look. I was trailing behind in my fancy hiking sandals just trying to keep from rolling my ankle as we jumped between boulders and slid on tiny fragments of rock. Landomari is a “nearby” village (an hour and a half away) conveniently located on top of a mountain, conveniently accessible by foot (and probably helicopter, although I have yet to see anyone try), and we would conveniently return to Pelel by the light of the new moon (brush up on your phases) a few hours later. Me, with my fancy high-powered headlamp, capable of four different settings. Her, with her flashlight that worked less than half the time. I bet you can guess who was the one that ended up rolling his ankle.

This is the same woman who wakes before dawn every morning. She rises and begins sweeping the family compound often before the rooster even realizes what time it is. She wraps her child to her back and makes a raging cooking fire from leftover coals. She sweeps the collective debris of nine people and twice as many animals into neat piles that the rest of us trip over as we stumble bleary-eyed from our beds. She’ll dump these piles over the fence after she orders one child to pee, another to put his pants on, and another to boil the water that she already pulled and carried back from the well.

At seven o’clock, she’ll serve breakfast. At eight o’clock, she’ll wash the dishes. At nine o’clock, she’ll start the 30 minute walk to the river with a bucket of the family’s clothing on her head. At eleven o’clock, she’ll start cooking lunch. At eleven thirty, she’ll clean up her son’s diarrhea and walk to the garden (10-15 minutes to get there) to water her plants. Finally, at two thirty in the afternoon, she’ll be able lie down and take a rest (but it’ll probably be interrupted by some or other drama). At four, it’ll be time to get up and wash the dishes from lunch, take several trips to the well, start cooking dinner, return to the garden for evening watering, and tend to any of the million other chores that arise.

But she does it without complaint. She laughs and offers to take your dirty clothes to the river for you. And she also does things like hike a mountain in order to spend a few hours dancing at a wedding celebration before returning home in the pitch black. Penda Toure has taught me that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful, so long as you focus on less of the former and more of the latter.

Jackson Harris