Friday, July 16, 2010

Every moment of every day is an assault on my senses - Senegal continued

Every moment of every day is an assault on my senses.  I feel like a child, I want to stop and look and ask questions about everything I see or smell or taste or hear.  There are moments that feel incongruous to me - Malal's cell phone ring tone is the break from 50 Cent's In Da Club, Ibou wears a knit cap when its 60 degrees outside because he feels cold, and out of the blue he says "what's up girl?" to practice his English.

There is no sense of privacy or personal property anywhere - Mustafah asks me what I'm drinking one morning, and when I tell him it's English Breakfast tea that I brought with me he picks up my mug without asking and takes a sip.  Then he takes my copy of The New Yorker and tries to read it.  "Université," he says upon landing on an advertisement for Columbia.  One evening I retreat to my room when Idy's wife, Fina, knocks on the door and asks me what I'm up to.  I tell her I'm reading a book and she hands me a bowl of vegetables and a dull knife.  After discussing Barak Obama with Ibou, I show him the photo of me and M in Chicago on election night that I have stored on my cell phone.  He takes the phone from me and starts playing with the buttons to see what other features it has.  Idy's three year old daughter, Mamie, who speaks only Wolof, walks into my room and makes a beeline for my contact lens case, picks it up and begins unscrewing one of the caps off.  I redirect her attention and bring her downstairs to find something else to play with.   These are all bizarre behaviors to me, but I grow accustomed to it.

Outside of the house the world is crowded and amazing, and our group of very white women accompanied by very black men is a constant source of attention.  There aren't many tourists in this part of town; the times we come into contact with other white people are remarkable in their scarcity.  We see a white couple on Avenue Léopold Senghor, prompting K to remark - in her Polish accent, "I forget I am white here."  We see the highest numbers of white people on Ngor Island, a tourist trap accessible only by boat that is covered in beach resorts and vendors who follow us, relentlessly hawking their wares.  They walk next to me with baskets on their heads, and sit with me when I stop to rest, bringing their baskets into their laps and pressing plastic jewelry into my hands.  I would buy some for my young nieces, but I know that opening my wallet here would be like scattering breadcrumbs in an aviary.  It is something I never get used to.

On the street near the house a young boy runs up to me, points his finger and yells "toubab!"  Idy tells me that this means "white person," and that it's not pejorative, the boy is simply saying out loud what he has just seen.  I do my best to accept my status as an obvious outsider; it would take months of living here before I came to be seen as a regular.

On the main drag of the city center there is much to be seen:  fruit vendors selling oranges that have been peeled to the pith with a knife, leaving marks that make them look like onions; paper cones of roasted peanuts; coconuts that have been cut in half.  The food vendors are the quietest salesmen we encounter.  Elsewhere the salesmen become a dense chattering mass, as when Ibou takes me to the currency exchange half a mile from the house.  He weaves through the crowds effortlessly, and I struggle to keep up.  I feel a hundred pairs of eyes on me as we enter a small building squeezed into the middle of an overcrowded block.  I hand Ibou $75, he speaks to a man standing behind an old timey cashier's window and gets 40,000 CFA in return.  Outside the building men walk close to moving cars while holding up cardboard display boards covered in cheap sunglasses, and my sense of being watched by pairs of unseen eyes intensifies.  I am overwhelmed by the density of foot, auto, and bike traffic, and Ibou takes me by the hand and leads me out of the crowds and onto the quieter streets near the house.

There are other things in the streets: garbage, curls of feces, men facing the wall using the street as an open urinal.  On a wall in three foot spray-painted letters is the phrase: "defense de pisser sur le mur" - "no pissing on the wall".  I think about this every time I re-enter the house, and wash my feet and hands.  There are goats, sometimes whole herds of them; women sitting by the side of the road doing laundry and nursing babies; one woman holds a cell phone to her ear as she squats on the ground, an infant suckling at one breast, the other naked and visible to all who walk past her - the very image of the first and third worlds colliding.  Children play in the street, and are carried on the backs of their mothers, who cleverly wrap them onto their bodies with colored cloth that matches their head wraps.   Chadit, our dance teacher while we are here, unfurls a breast and begins nursing her infant son in the middle of a lesson.  She demonstrates the dance moves with the baby latched onto her.  When she and Malal come to the house for dinner, they bring their three children with them, and when they become tired they fall asleep wherever they are, no sounds of adult conversation or laughter can rouse them.

The electricity cuts out in the neighborhood and Chadit and Fina finish cooking by the light of a miniature flashlight that I have attached to a key chain, and hook onto a nail in the corner of the impossibly small kitchen where Fina prepares three meals a day with help from the two young sisters who've been hired to help with housework.  The thin sisters walk through the house, wordless shadows among us, bending in half to throw wet rags onto the floor and walking backwards as they mop, their bodies inverted Vs.  I try to speak a few words of Wolof to them: "Jer-e-jeff," I stammer, trying to remember the word for "thank you."

The electricity is still out by the time dinner is ready and we eat by candlelight, seated on the floor in West African fashion, using only our right hands to scoop handfuls of food from communal plates.  There is a method to eating this way, the first night that we ate together a great show was made of demonstrating the proper technique of grasping a handful of rice with a bit of fish or vegetable inside it, squeezing it repeatedly until it holds together, and popping it into our mouths.  We were sloppy eaters at first, but have begun to get the hang of it.  The food is amazing - every day Fina goes to the market by the ocean and buys fish that's been caught in canoes earlier that day, then scaled and gutted by women who hold cigarillos tightly in the corners of their mouths as they pound away at their work.

When dinner is finished we sit in a circle as Ibou prepares attaya from gunpowder tea in an elaborate process that involves pouring it from a small kettle into an even smaller glass cup, holding them as far from each other as possible to produce foam.  The tradition is to drink three cups, and I oblige.  Ibou demonstrates the proper method of drinking attaya, holding the rim of the glass cup to the edge of his lips and sucking loudly to pull the tea up through the foam.  The loud sucking noise is a central part of the ceremony.  I mimic him, resulting in a great sputtering of gasps and coughs, which produces much laughter from the locals.  Among us, we speak several languages, and we begin a round of tongue twisters: E teaches "how much wood would a woodchuck chuck" in English; K teaches a Polish twister that sounds like "karo kara karope"; and Fina teaches one in Wolof.  The electricity returns at 1:20am, just as we are preparing for bed.

In my room, filled with three cups of gunpowder tea, I am unable to sleep.  I toss and turn, every sound setting off the nerve endings in my ears, until I give up and get out of bed.  Across the hall I can hear the Polish sisters chatting, and knock on their door.  I tell them I can't sleep, and they invite me into their room and offer me Polish candy, which I accept greedily - I haven't seen candy since my arrival.  K shows me pictures on her camera that she took in Poland just before coming here, they show snowy scenes of an impossibly pristine and quaint old world, and despite the wonders of this place my heart yearns to be somewhere that looks as familiar as Poland looks to me now.


Midtagessen said...

I love that you portrayed that assult in such a way that it was almost an assult to the reader. There was such intensity. I don't know how I'd react to being such an oddity...the "white person". Thanks for always I love it.

JP said...