I’m sitting in the courtyard at my grandmother’s house on a brightly patterned woven mat on the ground. The sun is no longer beating directly overhead and the shade beneath the huge tree provides a cool comfort perfect for napping. Eight beautiful women surround me – each wrapped in vivid Senegalese cloth, laughing, singing, and chatting at me in Wolof as if I can understand. I’m genuinely happy. There are children everywhere, mostly between the ages of 4 and 7, alternating between staring at me unblinkingly, stroking my hair with awestruck expressions, and running around. There are also babies sleeping, screaming, smiling, or breastfeeding. This scene is normal for me – I visit my grandmother’s house almost everyday with my 14 year old sister, Fatou, and we spend hours lounging on the mat with the rest of the women. Today I am holding one of the adorable baby girls, cooing bits of Wolof and French (Frolof) and contentedly lost in my own world.
I look up from the little girl in response to a sudden silence to find everyone looking at me expectantly. This is a frequent occurrence when I forget to remain alert to the conversation (a difficult task when the conversation is in rapid Wolof). Without any idea of what was just said, I smile and nod – a response to not understanding that typically gets me off the hook. A woman repeats her question, this time louder and with more urgency. The cheeriness in the air has evaporated and tension seems to be hanging on my answer. I desperately turn to Adja, one of the younger women that speaks decent English because she grew up in Gambia. She translates for me by quite simply saying, “She wants to know if you will take her baby back to America when you go.”
My first reaction is that she must be joking so I just say, “Nooo, I couldn’t!” followed by a smile, relieved that Adja was there to rescue me. The woman frowns at me for a moment and asks, “Pourquoi pas?” At this point I know she isn’t kidding. The other women are looking at me intently, and even the children are quiet. Adja is waiting for my answer in case she needs to translate and Fatou is nodding at me, encouraging me to respond. I have no idea what to say – my lighthearted mood has shattered and indignant responses are flying through my mind. I struggle to suppress reasons such as “Because I don’t want your child!” and “I am too young to adopt a baby!” and “How could you just give up your little girl like that!” I finally settle on saying that I can’t take her with me because I have to go to college. The mother nods, and at first I think the conversation is over, but then she asks why my mom can’t just take care of her if I’m not able to. I immediately say that my mom works every day and so does my dad, and no, I don’t have any siblings. The woman nods again, albeit a little coldly, and reaches for her child. I hand over the little girl and glance around, feeling inexplicably guilty, at the rest of the women. They’ve gone back to laughing and talking in Wolof, and I am left feeling utterly alone and disheartened despite being surrounded by smiling faces.
At first I was shocked and appalled by the woman’s question. I spent a significant amount of time afterwards pondering – what kind of mother can give up her baby so easily to a stranger? How does she know I would be a good caregiver? How can she not understand why I don’t want to take her? Is it because she has too many other children? Is it too hard to provide for her family? Will the little girl grow up in an unloving, possibly harmful home? Is it because she assumes I will provide her child with a better future because I’m wealthy in comparison? I felt awkward and uncomfortable and frustrated by my lack of ability to explain my feelings in French. Over time, though, I began to wonder if the woman’s offer made her a better mother to that child. Is she willing to do anything it takes – such as potentially never seeing her child again – to give her little girl better opportunities? I know that these questions will be left unanswered, but I have realized that I shouldn’t have jumped straight to feeling scandalized and righteous. You never know a person’s true reasons for their actions, and in the end, who really gives us the right to judge others anyway?