Nous Sommes Ensemble

Tess Langan - Senegal


May 25, 2011

I left my little blue wallet with my two credit cards, half of my monthly stipend, a hundred dollar travelers check that my visiting mom had posed there, my emergency contact information, and the scribbled passwords for both of my credit cards in a local boutique when I went to buy a little sack of yogurt for fukki derem (twenty five cents). I think I was enjoying my little sack of yogurt (Senegal’s version of go-gurt only so much better)a bit too much because I thought not of my little blue wallet.

I walked home and starting eating lunch, the national dish of the ceebu jeen. I was angling myself around the bowl to have better leverage with the manioke when I got a text message from my group leader Anta two hours away in Dakar “You left your wallet at the boutique when you were buying lait caille (yogurt)”it read. My breath came in funny half circles and I stood up abruptly. Once I realized that I was helpless to answer the two questions pounding through my head (How could I be so stupid and how did she see that?) I was knocking on the hollow door of the boutique.

The door echoed loudly and futilely I thought, until I noticed the man approaching me on my side of the door. He told me that his friend the shopkeeper was currently eating lunch and brought me to talk to him through the iron corrugated window. I was told to wait a few minutes and when I turned to thank the complete stranger who had made helping me his first priority, he offered me this simple maxim, “Nous sommes ensemble” (“We are together”). The shopkeeper who had called Anta after looking at my emergency contact information, arrived a couple of minutes later with my wallet. It was he who insisted that I comb carefully through my wallet, making sure everything was there. It was.

I was touched by the encounter and by that stranger’s plain “nous sommes ensemble”–the way his benevolence of spirit blinded him to my strawberry blond hair, and the pinky sunburn across the bridge of my nose. He only saw a fellow human.

Since then, I have heard “nous sommes ensemble” many more times, both in French and in wolof. Most days it rings true; my friendly clementine vendor likes to give me an extra little “bebe” (“baby”) as I call them, repeating simply, “cadeau” (“gift”). I get dinner invitations waiting for the bus, free sugared peanut butter patties from the peanut vendor who probably makes one dollar on a good day but who presses me to take the gift, “suma xarhit la” (“my friend”). It is in this country of “vivre ensemble” (“live together”) where my host sisters come running to find me where I sit journaling in the courtyard, to give me a third of their suckie candy, where the mother of two sitting next to me on the bus offers me an orange.

Senegal has so much to offer, but it also asks for much in return. When I walk the streets to work each day it is not uncommon to hear “dox ma sa xahlis, sa chemise, sa sow,”(“give me your money, your shirt, your yogurt”). I have had a little boy even go so far as to grab my wrist to take my snack. I have had friends ask for gifts from me in an abrupt, abrasive, way that makes me very uncomfortable.

One day, I asked my host sister to watch my camera for a minute and suddenly it was gone. At first we thought it was lost but then it came to seem more likely that it was stolen.

I was feeling betrayed by this small community that I have come to love when my host sister starting searching the streets with me. I went back to search the school and everyone instantly mobilized for me. Diarra, my co worker, called another teacher to ask her to check her sac and everyone was asking me to retrace my steps. The teacher I work with, Mame Diouma, came back to school halfway through eating lunch in order to help me look and the school guardian came to my house to make sure there was no potential that my younger sister had misplaced it or took it as a joke. The three of them, the guardian, Mame Diouma and my sister, not only put up with double and triple checking the road, it was them who took me to a local marabout, a religious leader, believed to have both medicinal and augural powers. Afterwards, the director of the school insisted that Mame Diouma take me to the local police station to file a complaint. I arrived there with my maid Mariama and my coworker Mame Diouma. Ten minutes later my flustered host mom Madeline appeared. Five minutes after that the school director school arrived and ten minutes later Diarra arrived and it was the six of us filing a single complaint for a stolen gray Kodak easy share camera.

Originally, I was sick to my stomach thinking of the moments I had captured and now lost on that camera but also the moments and people and nooks here that I would not be able to capture and port back to America with me. But now, beholding the molted six of us, a full spectrum of colors and ages and sizes, this upsetting and tumultuous encounter: the stealing of my camera, had become another gift of overflowing Senegalese generosity. They given me their Tuesday, clicked their tongues in angry disapproval, and cared so much more than I ever would have asked of them–another moment in itself worth capturing.

Tess Langan