As a kid, I used to do this thing where I’d get lost on purpose. I remember bagging up my Cheerios in a Ziploc along with some water and looking down at my shoes until I turned 30 corners. When I looked up, if I knew where I was, I would look down and keep walking until I didn’t. Then I would eat my Cheerios and try to find my way back. This has absolutely been the most useful quirk I possess as I explore my way through Senegal. Not that I’ve been getting lost a lot, although on an occasional Saturday I can indulge, but more the comfort of venturing without specific purpose in a casual expectation that something or someone interesting will come to pass.
So, when I was invited to go to Richard-Toll to meet a man I’d briefly met the week before, I was so down. As it turns out, it’s not the easiest place to get to, and my fellow Fellows Jake, Kedisha, and I ended up waiting several hours before ending up in a crowded bus. On arrival, our contact, in a very Senegalese manner, informed us via telephone that he had forgotten, or more so that he had never been aware, that we were to arrive that day. Rather than brush us off, we were invited to the wedding with which he was currently preoccupied.
Now, Mamadou Lamine Niang is the most interesting person I have met so far. Near fluent in English, he described how he had majored in Philosophy at the University of Dakar only to drop out at the wish of his father to pursue business school, which he also eventually left. Afterwards, he began working with a Pan-African organization RADDHO (African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights) to help refugees from other countries with social unrest integrate into the ‘sharing is caring’ Senegalese culture.
These days, he volunteers at the International Red Cross office in Richard-Toll, among other organizations that have projects in the village, and there is good reason for all the diversity of programs. Richard-Toll buzzes with motivation and interest in the feasibility of change. A French sugar-cane factory employs 8,000 people, and perhaps this western influence helps funnel the ‘we can do it’ attitude that empowers growth. To be honest, I couldn’t really put my finger on what made this town so different to me, but if I had to say, it was Mamadou.
I knew he had had experience with showing off Senegalese culture, but he really had this stuff down. He took us to see the river which irrigated the sugar fields, and then insisted on taking a horse-cart to the wedding. At first, roughly squished between my backpack and the hot metal bars on the side of the seat, I was reluctant. However, soon I began to gaze at all the shops and people running about without the urgency and shallowness of the car window. He pointed out buildings and explained their history and their place in the culture, and when we arrived finally at the house, we were greeted as if we were family.
We laughed at the old storyteller with the megaphone who insisted on many pictures, especially when Mamadou informed us that no one could ever understand what he tried with such conviction to explain. We discussed mutual friends and our reason for being in Senegal until, far too abruptly; we left in order to make it back to Ross Bethio for French class. On the way back, we stopped at his sister’s house because it was two stories high, and Mamadou wanted us to see Richard-Toll in a different way. As if the roof wasn’t enough, he brought out a chair to stand on, and as I rose, I breathed in the new perspective.
In just a few hours, we had evolved from the view of a tourist as we were guided along the road, to the view of an insider as we clapped along to a wedding, and finally to the view of a friend, with whom he had shared something beautiful.
Still dazed in the scalding heat of the village, and reflecting on the opportunity for adventure ahead, we climbed into a taxi to go home to Ross Bethio. Mamadou, who insisted on running back to his house before our departure, returned with three books, in English, that he wished to lend. While this may not seem drastic, here in Senegal where many kids don’t know even what it feels like to hold a book, let alone one in English, I understood the gravity of the gesture and the severity to which I had to uphold it. I thanked him and smiled, reassuring him of my intention to return as soon as I could.
The long ride back was peppered by bags of tiny oranges and animal crackers and the onslaught of sleep and hunger. I felt as if I had discovered a hotspot of new friends and potential for learning more about the development we’d been studying all along. I realized that absolutely nothing, not the garden, or the new computer, or the philosophy club, or anything I had accomplished so far, chalked up to a single relationship I had formed since my arrival.
With less than two months left (oh my god I don’t want to think about it), I am learning how many more people there are to meet, how many more stories to hear, and how many decisions there are to understand. Nothing is over until it is over, and I promise myself and you the adventures to come.
Also, does anyone want to send me some Cheerios?