The Drive

Isabelle Johnson - Senegal


February 23, 2018

Just some thoughts from a recent drive. 

 

 

A few weekends ago I traveled north with my little sister to visit an aunt in Saint Louis who recently had her baby girl. 

 

We crawled out of bed at 5:45am to catch the bus that would take us the hour and a half journey to the infamous Theis garage. There, we grabbed a quick “street omelet” (eggs, onions, and spices cooked in oil and shoved into a half kilo of squishy white bread) and tap (sugary morning tea). 

 

We took our balanced breakfast with us as we headed towards the sept-places (seven-seaters). After finding a car and bargaining prices, we crammed our bodies into the vehicle that appeared to have every piece of it originate from the body of another car. If I had just arrived in Senegal, I would have bet my money that the car would never start. However, I knew we’d be on the road in no time, with a driver that looked younger than I was.

 

So there I was, squashed into the window of what was meant to be a seven-seater but somehow turned into a nine-seater plus a small child. I was feeling good that morning. 

My sister immediately snagged my phone and started playing the Senegalese music I hear so often that my brain plays it while I sleep, so I assured her she could use both earbuds for the start of our journey. Without music my mind had the space to wander & reflect. 

 

The prayer beads of the men in the vehicle spun around their fingers effortlessly as we passed flat and sandy land filled with livestock – the ankles of the donkeys, bulls, or goats tied to the bases of the small, leafless trees.

 

The massive, grey, and daunting baobab trees stood out against the empty landscape. Some still held two or three long-hanging fruits extending straight down from their branches, fighting gravity and threatening to plummet to the sandy ground at any moment. 

 

Hundreds of half-built structures were scattered along the sides of the road. Dozens of pressed cinder blocks & long metal rods waited outside each crumbling building, as if the workers had simply gone home for lunch and would be back soon. Sand blanketed the materials outside many sites. On a few of the buildings I watched one or two men slowly make the cinder blocks, pull cement or materials up to the higher-levels using a bucket and a rope, or sit sprawled out in the sun. 

 

We slowed down to avoid hitting a herd of goats when my nose caught the familiar ambrosial & pungent smell that signaled burning trash. I looked out the window opposite me and stared at the small trees that had caught dozens of plastic bags in their branches, rooted outside a landfill that a small fire in the center seemed to slowly burn forever. I thought about the trash problem I saw when I first arrived in this country. I was so passionate about environmentally-friendly practices back home, that the trash that filled the city streets or the landscapes like this one would depress me. The longer I’ve spent here, however, the more I have been able to understand the bigger picture. First of all, if families back in the States started throwing their trash into the farmlands or forests like they do in the village I live in, there would be A LOT more of it. Wastefulness is not an idea that is tolerated in Senegal. If something needs to be thrown away, it means it truly cannot be used for anything else. A tomato can or a bag originally designed for holding onions will go through many many many lives before deemed un-useful. So trash here really is trash. Another way of viewing the trash problem is by looking at world pollution as a whole. You can step off the plane in Senegal and think “oh my god look at all this garbage this is a terrible system that is destroying the environment”, when actually the CO2 emitted from the plane you came on is greater than what is emitted from the country in a years time. That might be a little exaggerated, but their is certainly a difference between the amount we pollute in the US versus here. This is not because Senegal has a bigger environmental conscious than we do…simply because they haven’t hit our level of industrialization yet. It gives me something to ponder as we pass by the landfill.

 

Of course I still see the overwhelming amount of trash around a huge risk to public health, and I blame the government entirely. You can encourage citizens all you want to throw their garbage away in neat little bins to clear the streets but unless you give them a cheap, convenient, and moral way to dispose of those bins they are just going to keep throwing it into the farm, until it eventually finds its way to a landfill like this one. There are as many environmental problems here are there are back home, but the more devolved your country is, the more responsibility you have to manage the damage that is outputted. 

 

We slowly puff to a stop at the side of the road and the car is immediately flooded with women selling small plastic bags crammed with clementines, sacs of peanuts, small sacs of frozen milk and sugar (crème), and small cups of spicy Cafè Touba. I think back to our cohort visits to NGO’s like Andando, that supply micro-loans to women to start businesses like these. Or to the women’s groups scattered around the villages of Lehar. They are run by the women of the village, and meet weekly to provide loans to group members to start up their own small business of selling ice or vegetables, protect members with a safety-fund if anyone should need it, and raise money for community projects. They act like small, community based banks. My host mom belongs to a few of these groups, and is always heading to meetings or “balancing her budget”, dealing with her finances down to the last cent. 

 

The money earned off these loans from the groups or from NGO’s gives the women freedom to make their own choices, not having to rely on their husbands for all of their income.

 

However, their profits are nothing compared to back home. The women here make only dollars each day. Their financial freedom might reward them with the choice between being able to buy her children new shoes, an outside mat for the family, or for new cooking supplies.

 

Back home “financial freedom” might mean being able to afford a second property, a college education, or a family trip to Jamaica. These are the thoughts that have grounded me throughout my experience, and it gives me something to think about as two strangers push the car onto the road and stay with it until till the engine kicks and we pull away from the women, some jogging next to the car trading oranges for coins with last minute buyers. 

 

I glance down at my little sister Agnès, who has passed out next to me 30 minutes before, Senegalese music still blasting through the earbuds. I gently pressed pause on my phone as she sighed and rested her head more firmly onto my shoulder.

 

Four hours later, we arrived at the outskirts of Saint Louis. Proof of the colonizers influence is everywhere, the streets and buildings different from any other city in Senegal. I am always reminded of the narrow, colorful streets of New Orleans when I glance up at the short buildings and their terraces that our car passes. We pulled into the Saint Louis Garage, the smell of fish clung to the air as the women in the garage sat in front of their tarps trying to sell that mornings catch. As we dislodged ourselves from the sept-place, I looked around to try and spot my aunt who promised to meet us near the entrance. I searched and held my sisters hand, the whole time murmuring “balma” (Wolof for “forgive me”) under my breath. I always forget how many Talibé have made the streets of this city their home. 

 

In Saint Louis alone there are 14,000 young boys sent from their parents homes to study at Quranic schools called daaras. However, many times, their teachers, also known as Marabouts, exploit the young boys. They are forced to beg for food and money in the streets and many nights don’t have a place to sleep, don’t own a change of clothes, and often times don’t even have shoes. This exploitation of young boys is heartbreaking. While some progress is being made in the form of emergency housing for talibé, and government programs to shut down the system, the number of talibés continues to grow. What’s even more heartbreaking, is how accustomed and desensitized I’ve become to seeing these children in the street and how it seems that everyone around me is just as used to them. A great challenge this country faces is creating a general awareness of this exploitive system and why it’s not a problem that can or should be ignored.

 

*~~~~~*~~~~~*~~~~~*~~~~~*~~~~~*~~~~~*~~~~~*

 

After a laid back weekend with family, my sister and I hopped into a similar mode of transportation home. The hot and uncomfortable space provided the perfect opportunity for another mindful & reflective practice.

 

This time my mind focused on my host family, more specifically the nights spent at my compound. In September the sticky, hot air from the day lingered into the night, and all of the families dragged their mats out under the stars. I laid out with all my siblings, learning the language and listening to everyone recap the days events. Now the nights are cold & windy, and my family cuddles up next to a bowl of burning coals and incense outside the rooms. The kids race to unbraid each others hair, or color with the books & crayons my grandmas sent. 

 

 

Before my trip to Saint Louis, I learned that my host mom is pregnant — and has been the entire time I’ve lived with her. When I found this out, I couldn’t have been more surprised…”Dee! (Mom!)”, I told her when I got back home “Je suis ta fille, y fu worri-do dara! Me unin fu lakkin coo ga lokkigo. (I am your daughter, and you told me nothing! I know you have a baby in your stomach). My mom laughed it off, and told me I was stupid for not being able to tell. As not very much happens in the villages, my discovery was big news for my friends & I. While visiting my aunt and her new baby in Saint Louis, however, I learned a few valuable lessons. Usually when there is a pregnancy back home there’s a huge announcement, a baby shower, there are gender reveals and names are chosen.

 

In Senegal, as well as many other African countries, this couldn’t be further from reality. I learned by talking with my uncle, that any mention of a pregnancy or the baby is almost forbidden. If you notice a pregnancy, you say nothing. Mothers hide their baby bumps with shawls or extra clothing for protection from bad spirits. Babies aren’t named for weeks after their births. 

 

Back home, children and mothers are in very little danger. Here, if something tragic happens during or after a pregnancy, it is far from uncommon. This really opened my eyes and showed me that no matter how long I’ve lived here or how much I’ve experienced, I still have a great deal to learn. And reminded me of the obvious, how lucky we are back home to enjoy all of technological & medicinal advances that we do. 

 

I have learned a lot about the African stereotypes that clouded my mind growing up. A lot of my daily life is stereotypical, but much of it is not. It is also important to remind myself that Senegal is one of the most developed countries within this continent. I’ve only witnessed the complexities, beauty, difficulties, culture, and people of this small part of the world. The experience i’ve developed here reflects Senegal, not Africa. 

 

I couldn’t be happier with my journey.

 

Thanks again for reading 🙂 


Isabelle Johnson