Senegal has taught me many things. The most important I would say is “just go with it.” “It” may be reading children’s books in Wolof to a group of toddlers, putting on beautiful clothes and pounds of make up only to have to take it off minutes later, or spontaneously becoming a member of the security staff for a revered religious leader. Just going with it is a product of not being completely fluent in Wolof. When handed a heavy woolen skirt and blouse with the word “Securité” written on the back and told to put it on in haste, I did what I was told. I may be able to ask the questions, but may not always understand the answers.
Let me first give this story a little context. I had gone to a religious ceremony (perhaps religious city-wide party is more accurate) with my supervisor, Aminta. The ceremony celebrates the birth of Mame Diarra, mother of the founder of the Murid order of Islam, which is one of the main brotherhoods in Senegal. She is the only woman with a festival dedicated to her and it occurs in her home of Prokhane, a short way from English-speaking Gambia. Hundreds of thousands of believers flock to the city for one day of praying, dancing and singing, combined with visits to Mame Diarra’s holy well and of course her tomb. My supervisor has some distant relation to the woman who built Mame Diarra’s final resting place. This kind gesture won her a plot of land in the city of Prokhane and a host of loyal followers. Groups of forty or fifty people camp out for two days in her compound, sleeping on straw mats or wrap skirts, a mattress only if you brought one from home.
We arrived at the compound late at night the day before the ceremony. We asked around for “Soxna si,” which literally translates as “the Madam,” and were led to her parlour and told wait. My eyes were slowly closing, only to snap open again at the sudden snap of a drum or crackle of a microphone. In short, I was tired. After waiting for what seemed like hours, the Madam finally arrived. Aminta, a short woman by Senegalese standards who could be anywhere from late twenties to late forties, eagerly rose from her chair and walked over to greet Soxna si. I followed, carefully watching Aminta’s every move, trying not to do anything to offend people in this highly religious setting. She stooped down to kneel at the foot of Soxna si, a regal woman dressed in a long brown silk robe with sunglasses perched on her head, despite the late hour. I was introduced as Aminta’s guest with no problems, and the Madam retired to her chamber to catch a few hours sleep before the festivities the next day.
After dinner and a shower, Aminta told me to lay down on one of the couches in the parlour, the only comfortable sleeping place around. I laid down without much protest, accepting the fact that when you are a guest in Senegal, the red carpet is pretty much laid down at your feet, as the Senegalese value of Teranga , or hospitality, is highly prized.
This showed true the next morning, when I was given breakfast by three different people who wanted to make sure I was well fed. Aminta had disappeared at this point, gone off to greet another relative, and I was questioning my spontaneous decision to join Aminta on this trip if it was going to consist of me sitting on a mat all day being force-fed bread and coffee. But as I’ve learned, Senegal can change for better or for worse in the blink of an eye.
Aminta came hurrying over to me and told me that the Madam had woken up and would soon be making her grand entrance. We rushed into the Madam’s bedroom and found her applying makeup. There was some fast paced conversation in Wolof, and I was handed my security uniform. The head of security brought me outside to wait with the security team, a group of beautiful young women (the Madam’s secretaries and friends) and handsome young men wearing combat boots, as if they expected a battle. The others laughed quietly when they saw me, the only white person around, sweating perfusely in the sun wearing an outfit meant for a polish winter, but they graciously accepted me into their ranks.
My security duties that day consisted of keeping adoring fans from spending too much time greeting the Madam, sitting docily at her feet like a lady in waiting while group after group brought giant bowls of rice and beef and sang her praises. I skipped out on my duties after lunch to see the sights of the city, but upon my return to the compound the security team overlooked my playing hooky and treated me as one of their own.
The kindness and hospitality of the Senegalese continues to amaze me. I had pretty much nothing in common with these people: different origins, religions, clothes and cultures, yet I was treated like a long lost friend by each and everyone of them. This is a further testament to the peacefulness that Islam teaches, not the violent extremist impression the West is given of Muslims by most of the media. As my time in Senegal comes to a close, I pray that I can be strong enough to take a bit of that kindness with me, to share with everyone in the US, maybe paying back a little bit for the kindess I was given as an untrained security professional.