Where Time Takes Us

Kaitlyn Johnke - Senegal


February 23, 2014

I wade across the Gambia River, not bothering to roll up my pants because I know the water will eventually be higher than I can roll them. A cow leads the way across the river to where Sadou is in the garden on the other side, and I can see the red speck that is his shirt as he gets the watering cans ready for watering the lettuce, eggplants, cabbage, hot peppers, tomatoes, and bitter tomatoes we transplanted from a nursery a few months ago. The water isn’t much deeper than two or three feet, the backpack containing my drinking water and the notebook I am writing this in stays completely dry on my back all the way across. There is a slight current and the rocks underfoot are baseball sized and a bit slippery, making each step a little precarious. The cow slips and I stop, not wanting to get too close to it even though the cows here are about as skittish towards humans as mice, and I note its large size as its horns dip towards the water as it struggles to keep its balance. I take the moment to look down the river, the early morning sun dancing across the water, reflecting its great expanse. I feel small and fragile, like when you look down from a high distance, and recheck in with my feet to make sure they are solidly on the bottom of the river, which they are, between some greenish rocks in the mud.

As there are days that are so painstakingly slow that I try to exercise time control by glancing often at my watch to check the time or date, there are times like this when I realize how lucky I am to be here, now. As riddled with problems the present moment may always seem, it is from conquering those problems that after five months of being here, I have come a great distance. Like the Pulaar say, “Ko yahoowo fegotoo.” You only stumble if you’re going somewhere. And here I have been, stumbling through these months, indeed going somewhere, but so is the community and environment around me.

We stopped taking the small boat to get to the garden since the dry season set in, and I finally agreed to what I thought was a crazy idea of wading across this very wide river I thought for sure would be deep. When the rainy season comes, which is the season in which I arrived in Senegal, the garden by the river that I am currently working on is swallowed up by the rising water level, and every year the river replenishes the soil with nutrients and they start the garden again as the water recedes. It mind boggles me that all the weeks of work I have seen and helped put into the garden- building a fence to keep the livestock from eating the plants, digging the garden beds, creating a nursery at another garden to transplant into this garden, and the tedious and back straining work of watering every day, could disappear so simply. It is a cycle of time and seasons and life I was not familiar with in the United States.

The longer I stay here, the more changes occur, opening up more stories and a deeper understanding of what is really here. In the last four months my sister has gotten married, my younger mother Rougi had her first baby and is learning to be a mother, and my older mother is pregnant with what will be her sixth child. My littlest bother has progressed from just saying my name and stumbling around to demanding me to do things for him and running. There are holidays that present a whole new set of daily activities: during Tabaski (the largest holiday) there was hair braiding, buying a sheep to slaughter, and henna tattooing hands and feet. Houses are rising up around our compound, cutting off the roads I originally took to get to boutiques. The people around me grow and learn, as they attend school- leaving the compound completely empty for large parts of the day, or as they are scolded for eating dirt while left alone outside (my youngest brother).

Family, friends, and people of unknown relation come and go from my house on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Coming here, I thought that I would be the main person coming and going. As school started for two of my brothers in Dakar, I have not seen them since November and will likely never see them again. My father, however, regularly travels there for weeks at a time, creating another cycle of absence and presence. A neighbor, who has become one of my closest friends here, announced to me yesterday that she also is going to be leaving to study in Dakar in a few days. This came as a shock to me, though I knew it was bound to happen at some point, I never thought I would have to start saying meaningful goodbyes as others left me and not as I left them.

Most important in all the changes that have occurred in the last months are my personal growth. I have become comfortable in my community, know where local resources are, taken on some responsibility in my host family, and I am able to understand- for the most part, a new language (Pulaar not French!). I have friends to make jokes with, a family to worriedly wonder where I am or if I am sick, neighbors to insist I stay to eat, and a community that yells out my name, Mariama, (and not toubab or toubaako, Senegalese for foreigner) when I pass.

Now, I can look back and see what was not evident in a day, week, or even a month. We are all different people than how we were when I arrived here, and this is a different place. I know what holds true and consistent despite these changes, and know even better what this place really is, who these people really are, and who I really am. If I were to judge Senegal by only my first week here, it would have been a misconception to believe that’s the way it always would be. And this is the beauty of seven and a half months in Senegal; a constant loosing and finding that leaves me grateful for what has passed, curious to know what still has yet to come, and content with where I am right now.

Kaitlyn Johnke