Senegal in Numbers

1) Bottle of shampoo that I brought with me and made last for 7 months, economizing by occasionally tilling my hair into neat corn rows and forgoing shampooing.

1) Thin beach towel that has traveled with me from Dakar to Saint Louis to Mbour, from cool showers, to colder showers, to beautiful beaches. We took trips to the shower together at least once a day during the sticky-air, rainy season but to the horror of my host mother, only every other day during the winter. (One day during the winter she noted that I had showered two days in a row and said, “Bravo, Tess, tu viens de venir Senegalese” (“Bravo, Tess. You are starting to become Senegalese.”)

3) Senegalese host sisters Marzia, (eleven) Marie-Jeanne, (ten) Aline (two) who, somewhere along the way, became just sisters. Marzia loves to tell me “nop ii!” (“silence/shut up”); last week Aline peed on my bed and, often, when I am resting, fatigued or with a headache, Marzia and Marie-Jeanne will sneak into my room, kiss me lightly on the forehead and say “Bonne nuit” (“goodnight”).

1) Time a week I talk with my family back home, coping with connections across the Atlantic that sound as if we really are talking underwater. I struggle not just to hear their morphed and echoing voices but to make this world real to them.

6) Names that I respond to: Tess (my host family and close friends), Tess-Tess (my host Dad, Benoitte), Tata Therese (my preschool kids), Tezue, (my friend Koumba ), Tereza (some “tetu”, or headstrong, preschool kids), Mame Teneg (my Serrer name), “LANGAN” (my host mom, Madeline), and Pess (some misinformed kids on the street)

6) Names that I try not to respond to when walking down the street: ,”eeeh toubab ehh! Fetchal Ussa” (“Hey, white person, Eh! Dance the [Senegalese equivalent of The Single Ladies Dance]! ); “Madam, Mademoiselle” (I respond, “Man goor la” .“I’m a boy”, which usually evinces laughter or silence); le plus belle (“the prettiest”). I furrow my brow and say, “Ana le plus belle be? ”Where is the prettiest?”; and the dreaded, unspeakable, growl-eliciting, princess ( I respond,“Je suis pas une princess de” “I am NOT a princess ”).

2) Times I have had my hair braided, fretfully pulled into a near-bald, spikey state. Despite my close resemblance to an albino lizard, Senegalese people love the fact that I have braided my hair like them. Strangers on the street stop me, ask me to tip my head down so they can better inspect and tell me that it is “tres belle”(“very beautiful”).

2) Times I have been asked if I am an American. Usually I am asked if I am Italian or Belgian, which I prefer in great part because if I am discovered as an American jokes about hamburgers often follow.

3) Roosters who reside in my courtyard and have not yet been programmed to crow only in the morning. They are still testing out their cock-a-doodle-dooing (here in Senegal roosters say cock-a-lee-koo) day and night like overzealous guards.

5) Fruit trees in the family courtyard: one mango, one papaya, one green Senegalese mandarin, and two cidem, a brown Senegalese fruit the size of a small cherry with a hard outer casing and a fluffy fruit within. The consistency used to repel me but now I love cidem so much that I relentlessly scour the tree for the fruit, which is embedded deep between layers of thorns.

4) Wedding invitations I have received, from longtime friends and family members but also from one woman on the very same day that I met her.

9) Dismembered mosquito carcasses currently clinging to my screen door like omens of the potential terror within. Sometimes it is hard to separate my life from the constant war I am waging against the mosquitoes of Senegal. My sisters and I play a game where we run around my room clapping our hands wildly to catch the creatures who move, nonplussed, at the last minute. My friend Dnieaba from the orphanage makes me laugh, examining my mountainous formations and telling me that she will eat any mosquito who dares bite me.

207) Number of children at the orphanage here in Mbour (where only about three are adopted each year). Most of the infants have only lost a mother and are placed in the orphanage temporarily to benefit from the medical access and free formula, which is expensive here in Senegal. Then there are the older children, who range up to age eleven, most of whom suffer from medical problems and most of whom should also be returned to their families. But the orphanage is only nine years old and often my questions about future planning are met with puzzled stares. The psychologist there told me that he thinks the biggest problem at the orphanage is its rapid expansion, perhaps at the expense of quality.

5) Number of times children on the street have touched me unprovoked, grabbed my hand to detain me, pulled my hair, or pushed me from behind when I was seated in a chariot. These encounters often deeply unsettle me because I am aware of the different standards of decency that apply to me and of an idea, implanted in a child’s head, telling him that I am not human in the same way he is. The children are aware that their actions would be disrespectful and violating if done to someone of their own color, so does that mean that I do not feel pain or emotions in the same way because I am a toubab (“white person”)?

4) Children from the orphanage whom I want to take home with me. The youngest is baby Fatou Diallo, followed by an almost perambulatory eight-month-old Adama Toure with his little mop-like fro and his brand-new laugh. Then there’s Sokna Fall Dieng, a beautiful one and a half-year old with attachment problems (she slaps at me and pulls my hair jealously if I hold another baby) and finally Cher, a nine-year old with an amputated leg. I have only known him for two months and sometimes I am surprised at how much he has affected me with his sunshine.

Adama Toure

2) Babies in the orphanage’s neonatal section who died this year, one from diarrhea and one from causes unknown. The vacated crib of Fatou Faye was quickly supporting a new squirming infant and I seemed to be the only one asking questions. How exactly did they die? I have gotten accustomed to the fatalistic Senegalese reaction to premature death. When someone tells me that their father has died and I inquire how, a long pause follows as they search for the apparently irrelevant information. “He is dead. What does it matter how?” the pregnant pause seems to say.


– Times that, despite the resistance of my mood, lack of moves and elasticity, or misplaced pride, the Senegalese have gotten me to spontaneously dance. (As Ouleye, a friend from the orphanage explained to me “We dance when we are tired”).

– Times that I have been told that I am crazy or lazy or talk too much or am never sure or that I do not understand any language–a manifestation of the Senegalese tough love brand of encouragement.

– Number of gerrete chafe (bags of fresh roasted peanuts), slices of xal (melon) and crème glace (plastic bags of frozen fruit juice sugar rushes that are liquid heaven for me), and clementines I have consumed here.

– Times, especially during electricity outages or on the beach, that I have craned my neck upward to look at the stars that are swallowed up in New Jersey by light pollution and by the purported busyness of our important lives.