There and Back Again

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


December 9, 2010

You did not think I would be doing this during my “freshman year” of university:

Tey ci ngoon man dox naa fii ba Keur Massar maa fexe fekk “L’Hopital Traditionnel.”

This afternoon I walked to Keur Massar so that I could try to find the “Hospital of Traditional Medicine.”

Sori na de! Danga dof?

It’s really far! Are you crazy?

Waaw-waaw, mën a nekk damaa dof, wante leggi-leggi sonn naa rekk. Dinaa dellu foofu Alxemes ci suba te wax ak benn fajkat parska bëgg naa jang ko… bu soobee Yàlla….

Yeah, maybe I am crazy, but right now I’m just tired. I’ll return there on Thursday morning and speak with a doctor because I want to learn about it… God-willing….

This was the conversation, here revived in grammatically-shaky Wolof, that I had with a friend last night after returning home, exhausted from an extraordinary afternoon.

I have been interested in learning about traditional medicine, for its biological mysteries and its social and cultural implications, since before coming to Senegal, so when I recently discovered that there is a hospital of traditional medicine “not far” relatively from my residence in Sangalkam I became excited and optimistic at the opportunities this might afford. Yesterday after lunch, with the Poste de Sante fairly empty, I set out for Keur Massar with a light backpack and half a liter of water.

The sky was clear, and it seemed not particularly hot as I passed the road sign for Sangalkam and headed down the regional route towards Rufisque. I knew I was looking for the first right turn, though the first signs for the way to Keur Massar and Lac Rose pointed only into walls and bushes. There was no sign at the intersection, but it seemed the only plausible option, so I turned and hoped.

The climate changed, melting before my eyes. The road began to crumble into dust and sand under the brilliant rays of the sun. Traffic all but disappeared while the boutiques that are so common in the village might as well have been nonexistent. There were a few people walking on the road: a young man wandering aimlessly, an old woman bearing a bucket on her head, and a middle-aged man riding a donkey cart to some unknown agricultural destination. They too, soon faded into oblivion.

The road twisted, once, then twice, and it was not long before I could no longer see the “civilization” from which I had come. Cement walls were transmogrified into decrepit fences and groves of trees or rows of plants or occasional signs advertising chickens for sale. At intervals on the way there were men resting in the shade or praying, and I clasped my hands together uttering salaam alekhum to which they returned good sentiments in amused bewilderment. There was some shade and I felt strong, so I decided to continue.

I passed through a village or two, mere collections of buildings often half-completed, but homes and livelihoods nonetheless, though I cannot remember their names. I passed through places and locations with no names at all, known only by the heritage of the families that inhabit or used to inhabit those incognito territories or by some figures long past.


And then there was nothing at all, not even power lines strung overhead. There were no people and no trucks. To my front and to my back there was only road, and on each side there was only land and more land and an occasional Baobab tree towering in the distance keeping a watchful eye on its domain. I was alone but I was not afraid. I had stepped out of my home, out of Sangalkam, and into a surreal painting of sublime color upon sublime canvas. So I turned my eyes to the point on the horizon where the road converged into naught, and headed that way.

At one point I came upon two young boys, playing a short way off the road. They called to me, so I decided I would find out if I was indeed walking the path I intended. Though the land was barren and their father a farmer they seemed content with the breeze, the view, and each other. Continue, they said, just a short way and you will reach Keur Massar. I lingered for a few minutes, then thanked them, wished them peace, and continued.


Keur Massar was not a short way away. I passed a ghostly settlement, still in the planning stages, that was empty beyond despair, consisting only of rows and rows of evenly spaced boxes, and one other project on which construction had commenced, then been abandoned. These were the artifacts chronicling the struggles of an alien history. I had walked for a long time.

I emerged from this wilderness of mind and landscape and met a very friendly group of young men, relaxing upon broken cars at the intersection of my road with another. We chatted, and they found my mission to reach Keur Massar as impossibly humorous as I found their disbelief that I had actually come from Sangalkam. Still, they informed me that turning right would lead me to Lac Rose while continuing straight would eventually deliver me to Keur Massar. We laughed, but when their jokes reached a vulgar point of no return I took my leave.

I began to pass through villages with a familiar air and countenance. Trucks carrying construction materials or eggs or bread or sticks tumbled by in the slalom course of pot holes (here, essentially ditches in the road), often choosing the more easily driven sandy roadside. The drivers waved.

Two men riding a motorcycle with a cart attached to the back stopped. 500 CFA for a ride to Keur Massar. No thank you. Okay, how much? No, really, I don’t want a ride. 500 CFA is a good price—Keur Massar is far. No—thank you, but no—we will all probably die riding that thing and I am enjoying the walk.

In truth I was beginning to worry and to doubt. I felt worn and my legs were sore from such a long journey, so often on sand. Every time stumbled I sipped some water but mentally kicked myself for, this once, really miscalculating how much I would need. Perhaps I would fail to reach Keur Massar, whatever it was, and even if I did how would I find what I was looking for? I looked at the sun and the clock on my cell phone. I still had plenty of time, but I feared that at some point I would have to decide whether or not to abandon my hopes and focus instead on getting home safely and quickly, and if that failed then assessing any other options.

On the side of the road sat a lonely cement building, only two rooms, in front of which rested two kind women, one older and one younger. I greeted them, and they smiled with surprise at my Wolof. However, after being forced to avoid French all day, I was at that point practiced in at least the one or two sentences I needed to present myself and my bizarre apparition into their lives. A small sign read something about traditional medicine, so I conjectured that, if anyone, they might know something about the hospital in Keur Massar. I did not understand much of what was said, but in the end the message was clear: it is down the road, not far. I was skeptical after hearing this lie repeated several times, but somewhat relieved nonetheless.

A little further I saw a small blue sign propped up on the side of the road. 100 meters remained. This surprised me since I expected Keur Massar to be a small city and my current location was anything but that. Still, some men who kindly offered to share peanuts with me assured me that the hospital would soon appear on the left.

The hospital appeared like an oasis in the desert. It was simply a collection of small buildings amid a grove of trees, but it pulsated with vibrant color that starkly contrasted it with its bland surroundings. As I greeted two religious men in front I released a tremendous alhamdulilaay!, the appropriate cathartic culmination of the past several hours.

Only a few men sat in the shade within the walls of the hospital, but they listened attentively to my explanation of why (and how) I had come and welcomed me completely. One gave me a brief tour and showed me faded photographs of the founders as well as some books and medical samples. He agreed that I should come back on Thursday to meet the doctors. I cannot wait to find out what tomorrow will bring.

Many days here have been days of “firsts”: the day I administered my first malaria test or assisted a live birth or staffed the Salle de Soin alone, the day I first cooked àttaaya or improvised guitar while an acquaintance rapped freestyle Wolof or walked with my little brother all the way across town in the dark to buy cere, or the day I first wrote music by candlelight or hauled 40 liters of water home or learned how to hop onto the back of a moving jaknjay.

Still, it was yesterday that my Global Citizen Year truly began, when I journeyed from Sangalkam to Keur Massar, when I walked from here to there.

Gus Ruchman