In Senegal the family dynamic is simple, but rigid. The men work, the women keep the home and do the cooking, and the children go to school and help the adults. Of course per family their are variations of this setup. Some girls don’t really get much of a chance to go to school, while others are able to go all the way to college. And many women are able to work in the market and even get jobs of their own, such as in health. But one factor remains fundamental, women do the cooking and cleaning, men do the “real” work. And often decent work cannot be found near where a family lives in a village. Such is the case with my family here in Ross Bethio. While some of the young boys work in the fields or at the nearby motor shop (a dirt lot littered with old cars and parts) all of the older husbands and fathers work in the city of Dakar. Dakar is a 5 hour drive away, so the fathers don’t get home that often. This makes the house a prominently female dominated realm, headed off by my grandmother the queen bee and final sayer of all things. I’ve never been in the presence of royalty before, but I would have to say my grandmother is more regal and proud than any older lady I’ve known. She’s in charge, and she knows it. And so does everyone else. Even among her older friends in the village, she is seen as more of a leader. Rarely does she go anywhere (most of her time is spent sitting on a foam pad, or in a chair in front of her room, overseeing everyone else at work and play.) If friends want to see her they come to our house. And all of the women and children in the family cater to her. She gets the best meals, and bed, and bathroom. And she rarely gets up to do anything for herself, always there is a child or maid around to wait on her.
But when the men come home, things are different. The day they are arriving everyone is both giddy and on edge, everyone but my grandmother. The children are full of glee, excited to see their father after it having been so long. The men only come to visit about once a month if not less. Imagine only getting to see your father once a month if your lucky? Its hard to envision for most, and it makes you a little teary eyed to see the elated faces of the children over one short visit. The men don’t stay for long, maybe two or three days, no more than five at most. So each visit is an event, and the atmosphere I would say is comparable to that of a holiday. Everyone is cleaning and cooking, and making everything and everyone look their best for the arrival. Every inch of the house is swept, fancy braids and weaves are put in, snazzy clothes adorned, and the meals are the most delicious and lavish. Usually it is only one husband who comes home at a time, and the wife of that husband is always in an excited frenzy. As well all the children are happy because even if it isn’t their father coming home, its still wonderful to have a father figure around.
The men sometimes come driving a car so the front gates are opened for this rare occasion. Everyone crowds around the wide metal doors, the children happily cheering on either side of the car as it rolls in. It’s as if we are welcoming the president, all thats missing is the red carpet. The older boys get the bags while the children vie at their father’s feet for attention. And the men always come baring gifts such as body cream, and fruit. I’ll never forget the timid, nervously excited way my Aunt Case served her husband. She was so jumpy and happy. Her hands shaking, she giddily brought in the tray of sliced fruit. Nervous for everything to please him, it was a bittersweet scene. And the children, oh they will break your heart with their elated faces preciously chirping “My papa is coming today!” “Do I look pretty? Is my hair beautiful? Do you like my dress?” “Did you come to see him? Come and see my Pappa with me!” “Pappa, Pappa, Pappa!” They crowd at his feet, smiles wide and eyes bright, begging for attention. Its both beautiful, sweet, and sad, and touching to witness.
Another occasion that sticks in my mind was more recent, just yesterday when the husband of my Aunt Fatou came to visit. She was more dressed up than I had ever seen before. And this is a woman who is not big on dressing up or vanity, not even for holidays. While others go for sparkles and shine, she wears simple fabrics and never employs a fancy weave. But here she was in a shimmery powder blue, rather tight fitting dress, fancier than anything I had seen her wear before. Hair done up all fancy, she was walking on air. Her husband, being the least of frequent visitor, I had only met once before. Fatou and her eight kids (that live here) were elated. The meal was exquisite, one of the daughters served her father and his friend a grand plate of meat in onion sauce, fries, tomatoes, on a bed of lettuce and garnished with carrots. Such a meal we only ever otherwise eat for holidays. After the men devoured the platter of food, the daughter came in perfect time to retrieve it. “Did you like the meal,” she inquired timidly. I craned my neck to see into the next room where only the men were eating. When they replied in the affirmative, that the meal was very good, the look on the daughters face was pure joy. She walked calmly but glowing out of the room. Then as she carried the platter to the kitchen, I saw her skip and do a little twirl of happiness. Flicking sand up with her pointed feet, she was like a senegalese ballerina. Absolutely precious.
Now what can be drawn from this exactly I’m not quite sure, except well it gives you a great appreciation for the strength of the women and children in these families. These women rarely see their husbands, and in a way they are for the most part single parents. The work and daily hardships they take on without a husband to lean on is living proof of the resilient power of a woman. And these children who grow up more or less without a father, bursting with happiness by just one visit, one smile, one hug, one compliment. It makes you appreciate your own family and be so glad for what you have. While its hard watch the stress this way of life causes the families, its also wonderful to witness the joy and warm sense of family that is a rare occasion for these people. When the men arrive it’s like a hole is being filled, the family is complete and all together. And while it may not be for long, they all know what a precious gift it is to have for the time being, and they feed it and love it with all their hearts. So even when the visit ends and the car leaves, things are more somber but still happy and content. The shared feeling of warmth can last them long enough, until next time when the men come home again.