In a true testament to the pace of Senegalese life, I have read my fair share of books while here. Autobiographies, fiction, anthropological research. Some, forcing myself to finish, while others I excitedly sped through. But none have been quite as challenging yet enthralling as the one that has encompassed the past seven months: a novel overflowing with unimaginable characters, a setting no photo will ever capture, and vignettes that have brought me to inescapable tears and ones that I smile simply thinking about.
Turning page after page, I better came to understand the characters of my life, realizing that I’m entering a story that’s already begun. Each a protagonist of his or her own with a history I never had the privilege to experience. Was Daba, my sister-in-law, just as sassy as a child in the particularly rural village of Samb or did she acquire this entertaining trait when she became a 15-year-old wife? And as I look into the weathered eyes of my grandmother, I wonder what this village looked like 60 years ago and the back-breaking labor she must have endured. But just as the beginning is not mine, neither is the conclusion. What will become of the characters I adore after my chapters are over? I pray Maty, my best friend’s daughter, will be able to finish school, unlike her mother, but fear her role as eldest daughter will interfere. Will Abdou, my nephew, who I have watched silently weep from the abuse of my older brother, grow to exhibit the same violence defined by his gender or will he remain as attentive and sensitive with his own kin as he is with the animals he cares for now? I imagine my older sister, Awa, flourishing into the great matriarch like our own mother.
While it pains me beyond any means of articulation to know I will not be here to watch Maty, Abdou, and Awa mature nor that I could share the past with my grandmother and Daba, we do have a few magnificent, circuitous chapters of our own. Despite the brevity of my time, I could fill volumes with my anecdotes. Like with the trip home with Khoudia, the person whom I feel closest to in this world, when the goats that were strapped atop the caged pick-up truck urinated, soaking every inch of us, then later fell to their death as we bounced along the pot-holed road. Or the time a friend came running into the health post where I work, virtually hurdling over the sick, just to inform me of a passing herd of camels. Even my most mundane pages are gloriously punctuated by Rama Gueye, my niece, who became the protagonist, antagonist, and author of so many of my days as she desperately squealed, “xaarma, Ami, xaarma” (wait for me, [my Senegalese name], wait for me), shuffled into her oversized flip-flops, always on the wrong feet, and latched her tiny hand around my index finger, accompanying me through all my menial tasks. She sits with me as I journal for hours, half of which are devoted to capturing her essence, from the way she tilts her head back and curls her upper lip as she laughs to how she howls whenever she runs with a deep sense of purpose. As I’ve watched her grow into a tiny human, she’s been there as I simply grow up, never knowing how much of that is because of her. For now I’ve put the books aside, not just to take advantage of my last few days in this setting with these characters, but because I can no longer bear to read any more endings. Soon I’ll be closing the book I’ve lived as Ami Gaye only to be able to read it as Emily Ford.