Most days in Senegal the sun shines so brightly that the white pavement blinds me on the way to class. Most days my host mother encourages me to eat, eat, to invite friends over for lunch, for the night. Most days I greet strangers on the street and hear their joyful rejoinder in a chorus of sing-song Wolof. Little girls, no older than three, have stopped to shake my hand and curtsy, and have trotted after me before being called back by their mothers. Some men who sell sandwiches out of a tent at the foot of our street have given me a Wolof name, Salimata, and at the Youssou N’dour concert we attended,
some fellows and I were given an impromptu lesson in Senegalese dancing: elbows, feet, hips and smiles. On the car ride home one of our Senegalese supervisors read my palm and declared that I would have lots of luck, “beaucoup de chance.”
But when it rains the mosquitoes come. They leave little red ant hills speckled across my feet. The heat here encases me like a woolen blanket, leaving me in a constant state of shiny. I have the developed thoughts of an eighteen-year old, but these thoughts are barricaded by a French lexicon which can express little more than the rumblings of my id (“I’m tired” “I’m hungry” “I go to school now”). Those days, when I walk the streets of Dakar, I focus on navigating puddles and averting my eyes from those of passersby. I check foreheads of friends for fevers in between class and hope to evade the man on the street who calls out to me, “American girl, American girl! Sup?”
Senegal is a country of sun and smiles and hospitality but I have begun to see beyond the parameters of a Lonely Planet Guide. My host mother is a consummate entertainer but on laundry day her eyes aredeadened, her face is bereft of her usual crinkly smile and her hands cup her back protectively. It is hard for me to see the toiling tedium of her life and the dissatisfaction it breeds. Friendly encounters with strangers on the streets can leave me feeling
buoyed but then there are the days when men stop to ask me my name. Do I live around here? Would I like some tea? They will accompany me to school. Do I have a phone number? Do I walk this way often? They will be looking for me. I sputter and fall silent when a friend of the family bluntly asks me “Why are you not my girlfriend?” and I wish that my encounters were not muddled and tainted simply because I am a girl. The children of Senegal have brought me much joy, especially my two-year old host sister, Aida. But it is unsettling when she refuses to eat her dinner or have her hair braided her mother barks and
When it rains the mat outside of my bedroom door drifts out atop a sea of water. But when I return home at the end of the day the water has dissipated and Aida skips towards me, arms outstretched. My feet are criss-crossed with mosquito bites. I am hot. There is a power outage again. But I pick her up and she rests her little head on my shoulder.
If it is raining, I do not notice.