The Story of A Stranger

Elise Leise - Senegal


March 9, 2018

Ten kaleidoscopic skulls stare back at me, strung together along the bracelet that now rests in my palm. A present from a stranger, something I would never usually adorn myself with but that I know will remind me of the man seated in front of me for weeks and years to come. He winces as he rises. Meets my eyes one last time as the corners of his mouth curl upwards. Softly, in a tone of benediction, he murmurs — "May God be with you."

I had entered the Dakar ice cream shop worn out but in good spirits, ready to embark upon the hours long horaire ride home to my village after the last of independent travel. In the corner sat a well-attired gentleman devouring the news with hungry eyes. Asalaam maleikuum, maleikuum saalam, went the quiet greeting of acknowledgement. But the owner was elsewhere and the flavor tubs sat empty, so when the open chair was beckoned to, I sat. 

If I possessed any worries about the logistical barriers of conversing in Wolof, they evaporated in the first minutes of our discussion — first, because he spoke excellent English, and second, because a single nod in response would precipitate a passionate renewal of whatever subject lay before us. 

"So you're from the States," he noted. 

"In the States, time is money…" — I nod, hearing the familiar refrain of many in his voice–wanting to protest, not quite knowing how to phrase how I feel.
"And here, Senegal doesn't have much money, " he continues. "But we have peace. We take the time to live the important parts of life…my watch repair shop is above this place and I live down the block in a nice house. Donald Trump…doesn't understand…that although we are not rich, we don't want his money. We don't need it enough to accept the words he throws at us."

His eyes crinkle at the edges as his gaze locks in on a point seemingly miles away.
"People should come here for themselves, you know. Senegal isn't all bad…isn't all good either, but the news doesn't like showing those parts of it…so many rely on others to make up their mind for them…" He changes tack, remembers what he forgot to ask: "Do you believe in Allah?"

 I give the standard response to any questions of religion in Senegal; Yes, I believe in God, I'm Catholic. Differences in religion are understood, but not being certain of belief is not an option. He glances at me but doesn't change character. "For me, Allah is the one true God…but you have the right to believe in yours as well. The Koran tells us to be accepting of all." He drifts off one final time.

"I had a son who lived in America," he tells me. "Good kid. Good, good kid…Baltimore actually…some angry person with a gun went and shot him. Gun violence. Why is it so easy? It doesn't make sense — you can walk into a store and purchase a gun — so, so easy. Good kid. Wish he was still here."

His eyes blink rapidly and he raises a hand to shield them as if to block out the afternoon sun.

I'm sorry, I say. And we sit together in silence. 

Seven months ago, I might have hesitated a little more at the strangeness of being drawn into lengthy discussion with someone who knew little more than my name. Not now. On rickety horsecart rides, at bus stops shielding dust from squinted eyes, in the middle of lunch and a big plate of ceebu jen, my life has been filled with Senegalese willing to share the underlying architecture of their culture with me, a foreigner who — according to my siblings — has a nose like a donkey, hair like a dog, and skin like the plastic Barbie dolls my family has somehow acquired. Rather than being crippled by fear of letting others in, like my home country, the Senegalese I know welcome foreigners not with fear or resignation, but with pride. 

The "Africa" narrative perpetuated in western media doesn't tell the hidden stories of struggle, of success, failure, growth, and innovation. Of pride. We aren't told what we don't want to hear: that when we only talk about Senegal as a developing country, when we focus only on dusty horse carts and broken metal doorways and flies buzzing through open fish markets, we choose to shield our eyes from the reasons why the Senegalese wouldn't trade their country for the world : the teranga; the generosity, joking kinship relations; the peace, valuation of family, and general sassiness of enjoying life that GDP measures of development don't have the capacity to take into account. 

Eventually the man turns back towards me and from the interior recesses of his backpack, extracts something to slip into the palm of my hand.  "I don't need this anymore," he says. "I want to give it to someone. You listened." 

He winces as he rises, meets my eyes one last time as the corners of his mouth curl upwards, and softly, in a tone of benediction, murmurs — "May God be with you." As I rise to leave, I glance down. Ten kaleidoscopic skulls stare back at me, strung together along the bracelet that now rests in my palm. A present from a stranger, something I would never usually adorn myself with– 

But that I know will remind me of the man seated in front of me for weeks and years to come.
 

Elise Leise