The Girl at The Glass

Tess Langan - Senegal


May 2, 2011

After my two-hour English class last week, most of the class stayed on, asking me questions about life in America.  A half-hour later they were still anchored in their seats. I had drawn a snowman on the board; clarified that, no, you do not often see celebrities walking down the street, and told them that it’s not commonplace to greet strangers. I had explained that extended families are generally dispersed across the country, not living in the compound next door, and that our patchwork of heritages means that there is no real national dish.

When I first arrived in Dakar, I was like these students, who snap their fingers eagerly to demand a question. I was constantly posing questions about Senegalese life and juxtaposing the answers with the life I knew in America. I worked hard to adhere to Senegalese society’s unwritten rules, mentally slapping myself when I slipped up and removed a fish bone from my fork with my left hand or walked across a mat without removing my shoes.

After living here for six months, however,  I no longer find myself comparing life in America to life in Senegal, they way I did for my students. Instead, I find myself comparing Tess American to Tess Senegalese.

In America, I put my dirty clothes in a convenient little bin called a laundry basket and a couple of days later my clothes reappeared Bounty fresh and folded on top of my dresser. Here in Senegal, I devote entire days to laundry. Sundays, I wake up early in the morning and join Fatou in the courtyard where she sits on a small stool, surrounded by buckets of various shapes, sizes and colors–one with sudsy water, one with sudsy water and clothes, one with clothes, and one with just water. She works quickly and efficiently, manipulating the clothing to make a triumphant squelchy noise, a noise that I sense is both a source of pride and a cornerstone of Senegalese womanhood. My inability to produce this noise serves as evidence that I have not yet been elevated to that lofty rank but nonetheless, at the end of the day, my clothes are clean and my hands rubbed raw.

Back home, I had a hand-me down car that I drove to school each day. It had its idiosyncrasies, like the way the antenna squeaked its way down after the engine had already been turned off. My sister jokingly named the car “antenny” and dreamed of Jeeps, but there were windows that went up and down, air-conditioning and a radio. Here, the last time I took a collective, (a station-wagon type taxi) into Dakar, I was squeezed in between two orca whales of women. The metal wiring on my seat poked at my back through gaps in the worn cushion and when the two women (who happened to be friends) paused for breath in between the raucous debate they were hosting, I could hear air whistling in through the long hole in the side of the rear door. The long man behind me seemed confused about what to do with his knees and my unhinged seat tipped forward like some amusement park ride each time he rearranged himself. In Senegal, my preferred mode of transportation is not the car but the langale, a horse-drawn carriage pulling a wooden platform. My friend, Henriette is always telling me that I am going to fall off, but I love the way the langale jolts and jumps through pot-holes and over bumpy terrain. I listen to the bells looped around the horse’s neck sing, and swing my legs.

In New Jersey, my alter-ego enjoyed eating and baking.  I ate both when I was hungry and when good food was within reach. I took full advantage of the obesity-beckoning concept of stored food. I had a close relationship to the bowl of fruit on my kitchen counter and was notorious for sneaking handfuls of chocolate chips, my Achilles heel.

Here in Senegal there are strict rules that govern eating, rules that I know I have adjusted to because both plates and sandwiches seem alien to me. I have learned to love the unchanging breakfast of coffee and bread and have moved past my beginner’s mistake of putting two spoonfuls of coffee powder in my mug, something my very economical family considered gratuitous.  At lunchtime I have learned to make sure my spoon is brimming with each bite, a subtle compliment to the chef, and to limit my talking and banish my song. I do not deviate too far from my pie-shaped slice of rice and am never overeager to dive into the fish and vegetable packed center of the common bowl. Instead, I enjoy the constant flow of prime eating that my host mom supplies me with, breaking up fish and vegetables with her hands into bite-sized morsels like some magnanimous delivery stork. At dinner time, I accomplished my greatest feat, in learning to love Senegalese cous-cous (a kind of strange, small, balled, green rice.

While I have adopted the taste for Senegalese cous-cous, there are other things that I will never fully adjust to, but rather have become inured to. There are days when I long to eat in apple in the midst of a group of people in defiance of the “my food is your food”, collective eating mentality that renders this action unspeakably rude. The arduous, six-hour stretch in between meals still feels like a marathon to me. Sometimes two-year old Aline will fall asleep in my lap before dinner and one night as nine thirty approached and dinner was still a tantalizing mirage in the distance, my host sisters started eating the dry, tasteless flakes of mashed potato powder. I am used to waiting til nine-thirty for dinner after working ten-hour days. I am used to pulling out half of my piece of gum from my mouth to give to my younger sister and watching her run into my room after dinner, happy to snap her hard candy in half and offer it to me.

Last year I read over forty books. This year, I read about four. Sometimes I would include a book in my sac and head of to work at the orphanage, reasoning that there would be time to read on the bus. I would get so far as to have the book open on my lap, but I was always distracted by the streaks of sunlight across the page, the heat resting heavily on my shoulders, the loud, vibrant wolof conversations dancing circles around me, but mostly, by the window.
The bus to the orphanage takes the same route each day and yet I cannot peel my eyes away from the window. The show of Senegalese life,  children playing marbles in the sand, beautiful, macabre silhouettes of baobab trees, and tippy towers of mangoes for sale, is still as alluring as ever, though the girl at the glass is very much changed.

Tess Langan