Integration, honestly. It’s a mix of celebration for the little wins and the feeling that this whole thing is a one big lie. A lie because for six desperate months I’ve been trying to become a part of something I cannot possible be a part of. The family, the village, the culture, anything. But suddenly, very recently, I’ve finally started to push my head out of the honeymoon phase and understand how content I actually am that this is all new for me. That I am tied into this by choice and not by birth. And there’s more to it.
For this whole time various people have referred to us with the metaphor of ‘babies’; us who enter a new culture knowing nothing, understanding nothing and being able to express nothing in words. Us who, in the words of my Wolof teacher Papa Pierre, open our big sad eyes to observe all we can in order to grow. Babies, trying to become children and then adults carrying all their responsibilities.
A few weeks ago I attended a wedding in my house. The drumming, the massive gift exchange and the timing all confused me in their own parts, and I felt like a failure in this game of integration. But then I sat down with a knife and an unpeeled onion in this tent with some older women with colorful headscarves and looked at the scene as if with the eyes of a bird sitting on my shoulder. I saw how incredible it was that I could, even vaguely, understand the aisle of topics in their conversation. Incredible, and yes I had achieved something.
So then who made me think about my own integration into this thing in a different way was the tall, mysterious young woman in flipflops crossing the backyard into the bathroom with her mother holding a heavy green blanket over her head, covering her face. The new bride.
“Her name is Fatou, she’s come to greet us.” All I was told when pushed into the first wife’s bedroom stuffed with dressed-up women from the extended family. Confused, I looked at the one eye I could see from between the sides of the blanket on her head and exhaled an unsure “Salaamaalekum” towards her. Expected everyone to laugh but they were all rather serious.
The bride, the second wife. She arrived into our house on a drum-loud Friday night five months after me. She was new I was old; I felt like I finally knew better than somebody how things worked. She had to ask where the outside light switch was while I knew; the baby ignored her calls but responded to mine. I thought her newness would last.
But I forgot she wasn’t one of the ‘babies’. She spoke perfect Wolof, she knew how to do laundry and she was most certainly capable of following the flow of all relevant traditions from her first moment here. Because unlike me, she had been born and raised in this same culture. But I found the most striking difference from the other end of the timeline. I was proudly a member of the family she had come to greet, a part of the jury inspecting every single detail from the glitter of her hairclips into the amount of foam in the tea she made. But only for two more months, I realized, while she had come to live here for the rest of her life.
Until the next Wednesday I was bitter because Fatou got all these laundry days and dancing sessions to help her become a part of the women’s circle in the area. No one had done that for me when I had arrived in September. Everyone made a special effort to joke and laugh with Fatou to make her feel welcome and comfortable. No one had done that for me. Fatou understood jokes and reacted to them in the right way that echoed a laughter in the other party. The kids already liked Fatou. She seemed to integrate so fast, I was bitter.
And then that one time I stole Fatou’s shoes. The same flipflops she wore on the morning of her wedding. I stood in them for a while, I stared at the wind-blown flower-printed curtain on her newly furnished modest bedroom and cried for her. Without having exchanged much more than that one awkward “salaamalekum” with her I felt my insides shrinking and wanted to curl up into a little ball swinging with my arms wrapped around my knees because I tried to picture the rest of her life.
I was struck by the liveliness of this timeline image. The haze of the wedding would fade away, the stress about a baby would replace it. Learning to make each food in the way it’s made in my family would become a goal while she would collect politeness points by bathing the first wife’s daughters. Her name written by her mother in big, green letters in the new, gifted kitchen utensils would wear out. Years and market days would bring her recognition; people would stop calling her the bride, she’d learn to distinguish herself from the other Fatou living in the house when receiving commands from her elders.
My envy towards the bride had, in a few minutes, turned into pity. I looked at her condescendingly as she walked to fill up one more bucket of water. “Poor girl, no choice, just this one life she is forced into, she even has to share her husband with the other wife.”
Now something important to remember is what I explain, sigh or insist to the men asking me to marry them and the women asking me to marry their husbands and the older women and men asking me to marry their sons: “Xale bu ndaw laa rekk” – “I’m just a little child”. That’s the conclusion I come to here sometimes after thinking about something for too long. Like, how will I ever really know how Fatou feels about being a second wife? Yes, when I thought about her future I felt claustrophobic to a point where I cried. But my tears were very biased with my thoughts on polygamy as whole, that is a big and problematic concept to me and a cultural aspect I personally wouldn’t want to be tied into. In the pity brought by the big picture I forgot this one thing about the bride: she’s an individual and whatever happens to her depends on her attitudes and actions. I forgot that after all her life is just life, joys and sorrows, just like mine. The more I talk to her and watch her, she seems to really love her husband and has become something like sisters with his first wife. Keeps smiling, keeps joking, full of clever responses to people who tease her. And does she question her own position the way I do? Probably not; she hasn’t lived in the same cultural influences that I have, that have brought me to immediately find the whole thing disturbing. Once again, we’re different, the bride and I.
Pity turned into quiet admiration and respect. She’s not above me, not below me – we’re the same but also very different individuals.
So again I am grateful to be an outsider trying to become an insider, in order to have all of this confusing and humbling observation and the endless reminders that my perspective is surrounded by all the others. Humbled I am having to conclude that somebody else is happy in what I would run away from. And what about the feeling that all this effort is for nothing because I cannot ever fully integrate anyway? Even though I’m here for only seven months for now, I realized in all this wedding hustle that trying to integrate is worth it. Worth it because without having tried to become a part of this I wouldn’t have realised that I, personally, don’t want to be a part of this forever. That while I’ve come to admire and occasionally almost envy many of the insiders, such as Fatou, I’m happy to – in the end of the day – be a little bit of an outsider.
In this hustle I grew; I’m not a baby anymore.
I had a realization while a group of people – the new bride with her husband, myself and a few others – were making our way through a dark alley filled with trash and shells and cool wind somewhere in Joal to the house of more relatives to meet. Our lives are futures and pasts, plans and memories. I realized that one reason why I sometimes feel displaced here is because I don’t share memories from anyone’s past, neither do I really belong to anyone’s future. And that’s essentially what people talk about when they meet, after the small-talk is over. The bride, Fatou, she is happy to belong to people’s futures and people are happy to welcome her into their long-term plans. But only when they live in the current moment, in the present, is when I feel like I belong. So I try to bring up things that are currently happening in order to belong more often. I try to make things happen so people could talk about them. And about me. But the other thing I can do is to swallow my own life for a free minute and respect the ones of others; appreciate the beauty of the pictures we look at even if I’m not in them, laugh at imitations of people even if I haven’t known them long enough to notice their mannerisms, admire the ambitious career plans of which truecomings I’m unlikely to witness.
If I look at us, eight or seven, sitting in the chairs and beds and floors of the bedroom of the woman I was named after six months ago, from far away, I see that no one really pays special attention to me anymore. And I see what it means: they all know I need no special attention. Anymore. I’m not a bride, I’m not a baby, I’m not a guest. That’s why I’m a child.
Photo by Maria Morava