The Longest Days, Chapter 5: “Seck and Senghor’s Excellent Adventure”

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


March 16, 2011

Previously: Contrary to several prior predictions, I survived the day of the Magal 2011. I learned about special rules for doctors and was overwhelmed in the best ways by a plunge into the Grand Mosque. It was almost time to go home:

Monday, 1 day after Magal: The city had changed. In fact, it was almost quiet. The air was slightly clearer, based on the empirical evidence that I no longer felt as if I were inhaling rebar. We organized our sparse personal items and then repacked any remaining medical supplies in preparation for departure. Then a few of us headed for the market. [slidepress gallery=’gus_chapter_5_final’] Please scroll over the images for titles and captions.

Seck wanted to get some gifts. The girls wanted to shop. I was mostly along for the ride. We hopped from vendor to vendor, negotiating prices of watches, necklaces with the photos of marabouts, and anything else, deciding that they were too high and moving on to start over again. Eventually Seck went off on his own, so I wandered with my Sangalkam co-workers.

Touba was not quite as empty as I had thought when I had woken up. Many people had returned to the markets for some post-Magal bargaining before embarking for home. Everything was for sale: used clothes, “new” clothes, fabrics of Senegal, Nigeria, and the Middle East, German skincare products, beautifully embellished copies of religious texts, fake jewelry, traditional medicines, modern medicines (including plastic bags with hundreds of antibiotic pills, much to my horror), rocks, bras, peanuts, etc. I ended up buying prayer beads and a beanie-type hat, to the delight of my companions.

I had been told we would leave sometime after 2 pm once lunch was finished, but by 5 I was wondering if I would not be facing “Waiting for Godot” redux. It was past 7—I had already heard timis announced from the minarets—when we loaded up on gas and started to drive away. As we sped through the streets we jockeyed for position with a police car, each of us trying to assert that our destination (home, presumably) was more important. There was traffic, but leaving was easier than coming. Soon we were making time.

Then we pulled over. Something was wrong with the car. With the ambulance and the pickup truck having left us behind, Seck and the driver got out of the vehicle and disappeared with only a comment about it all being an adventure. I sat silently with the two girls. Tired of being cramped up in the back, I decided to stretch my legs. The cars and trucks passing by were once again making the air less than fresh, so I tied my bandana over my nose and mouth. Combined with my glasses and new hat I admit to appearing like an intellectual bank robber.

Realizing the late hour, our lack of dinner, and the slim possibility of our moving any time soon, I decided to walk down the road to find a boutique to buy a little bit of this or that to thank my friends for so generously bringing me to Touba and back in one piece. The few people awake were too shocked by my sudden apparition to do anything as I said my asalaam alekhum’s. I returned with some juice and cookies, but the men were nowhere to be found, so the girls and I feasted in our tired impatience.

At some point I called my host mother (again) to let her know that I would probably not be home for many hours. At some point the car got fixed. At some point I drifted, then fell asleep in the back of the car.

Then I awoke. I was cold, having given one of the girls my cross country jacket. The car was stopped and I had no familiarity with our surroundings. And I was alone in the car. The unreliable vehicle had broken down again and Seck had gone with the girls to the local market to find some more food. The driver had gone to find mechanical help. I relieved myself.

Tuesday, 2 days after Magal: Sangalkam appeared in our headlights around 5 am, about ten hours after leaving Touba. We drove on to Gorom to drop off Fatou Bintu, passing through villages that are familiar during the day but ghostly and foreign in the fog of night. The road was the worst of the entire trip, and I had my fingers crossed about dying on the home stretch as our driver tested the limits of the speedometer and the traction of the tires, swerving around ditches and potholes at increasing speeds.

Not wanting to wake up my family to unbolt the doors I opted to sleep a few more hours at the Poste de Santé on a mat on the floor in a room with the night guards. I felt silly and uncomfortable when I walked out several hours later to find patients lined up and waiting, but I went home, hoping to shower and do some laundry.

There was neither power nor water. My grime-covered state would have to remain. Not until that evening was my backpack, which had been in the back of the ambulance, returned to my possession, and the water came on even later, allowing for a desperate bucket shower and shave in the blackness. Then I went to bed. After all, I was heading to the Senegal Fellows monthly meet up in the morning.

After three months in the village, working in Touba was a halfway test. It was an immersive all-or-nothing exam in culture, language, and medicine as I represented Seck, Sangalkam, and the American image to pilgrims, religious leaders, and other professionals. It pushed the limits of my physical endurance (i.e. sleep deprivation) and my ability to adapt in the heat of the moment when there may be serious consequences for failure.

I wish I had a shirt that read “I went to the Magal 2011 and all I got was this t-shirt,” but it would not be true. It was an excellent adventure, a few days to last in memory for a lifetime. When people here ask me if I will return to Senegal I grin and reply:

Waaw waaw, bu soobee Yàlla, ngir maa ñëwaat Touba. Yes, if it pleases God, in order to come back to Touba.

Up next: Yàlla rekk móo xam….

Gus Ruchman