To the Beat of the Drum

Keaton Scanlon - Senegal


October 10, 2013

After the long and sweaty bus journey from Dakar, I walked through a seemingly endless maze of corn-fields and got my first glimpse of my new host-stay village of Thabekare. With my backpack bumping me as I walked, I passed hut after hut before coming to my family’s own compound.  I smiled at my host father who shook my hand, proclaiming that my name is “Batouley Ba!”. He smiled back, and then started saying something in rapid Pular, which just left me confused. I continued to smile. For the next 24 hours, my face hurt from smiling so much. I smiled over my breakfast of sweet rice porridge and lunch of couscous. I smiled as my mother tried to teach me to milk a cow, something that is definitely an art I haven’t quite mastered yet. I smiled as I was shuttled from hut to hut throughout the village, being greeted, welcomed, offered seats and served traditional
tea and lunches by a seeming endless array of people, all kind enough to take time out of their seemingly endless list of chores to try and teach me a word in Pular, or to speak to me about Senegal and America. I soon realized that I wasn’t being taken in by a family, but by an entire village. As my neighbor came over to braid my hair, as cousins helped me carry water from the well as I sloshed it all over my shirt and as my sister nodded with kind encouragement as I slowly and awkwardly ground the corn for hirande that she ground to a powder in seconds,  I continued to smile. I found myself wishing more than anything that I could say something, anything, beyond “Good morning” “No thank you, I’m full” and “No thank you, I’m really full”. Here was a group of some of the kindest and most nurturing people I had ever met who were going out of their way to make me feel welcome and at home, and I couldn’t even express my gratitude to them for all that they were showing and teaching me. So I just continued to smile, feeling wholly unsatisfied with my ability to express myself.

One day, I was sitting under a mango tree with my family. My stomach was to a bursting point. I had just been offered my 14th lunch of the day (I promise it is actually less of an exaggeration than you’d think), and despite my protest of “Mi harri tempt!!!” “I’m really full!!” was being offered peanuts by a neighbor, when I suddenly heard the far-off beat of a drum.  I perked up. My host brother looked at me and grinned. Through a lot of mining and hand gestures, I had communicated to him the night before that I loved African drums. He motioned for me to follow him, and we walked down the short dirt path before getting to a nearby clearing where two men with drums were quickly being surrounded by children, men and women running over. A large circle soon formed as the villagers clapped and “whooped” in tune to the drums. All of the sudden, an old woman, her face lined by years of hard work, entered the center of the circle. She paused for a moment and then raised her arms up high and began stomping vigorously. Her face serene, she danced with grace and eloquence that I had never seen before; her entire soul was evident in every move she made. I watched in awe. After a couple of minutes, she turned her face towards me and with a smile devoid of front teeth she gently grabbed my arm and brought me into the center of the circle. She backed away. What was left was the villagers standing in the circle, the drummers beginning to pick up their pace, and bare-footed me standing alone in the circle. I found myself thinking, “I don’t know how to dance like an African.” For a split second I considered backing out of the circle, but then I knew what I had to do. Raising my arms, I began to stomp. The villagers started to clap, as I did my best to imitate the moves that the woman had done before me. The drumming picked up its pace faster and faster and I continued to dance. I most definitely looked nothing like the woman. I most probably actually looked ridiculous. But I can say that I put my soul into each move that I made. After a few minutes I moved out of the circle, allowing for the next woman to enter, with such grace and agility that it shocked me.

While the days that followed the drumming circle before going back to Dakar still consisted of a lot of mere smiling, I also found myself slowly learning more Pular, and slowly beginning to express myself more. I realized that communication doesn’t always have to be verbal, in fact oftentimes the most meaningful communication isn’t. I can communicate my gratitude in the ways I know how, through a dance move or two. I know I have a long road ahead of me, but I also know that I can show my genuine thrill to be here by moving to the beat of whatever drum is thrown my way.

Keaton Scanlon