Saturday, July 31, 2010

Nanga Def? Senegal continued.

We have begun to settle into a routine; Idy's wife and two young children have moved in for the duration, taking the room across the hall where the Polish sisters were sleeping.   Idy announces this change in living arrangements as casually if he were telling me where to buy bottled water: "Fina and the kids are coming to stay here, so K and A will be moving in with you."  At this point these little invasions of privacy feel normal, and it suits me fine as I haven't been sleeping well, mostly because at night I sleep alone in a room that faces the cement front yard of the building.  There's an iron gate separating the property from the street, and if it's not closed properly the wind whips it open and closed all night long, the sound of metal-on-metal making its way into my dreams.

The Polish sisters slide their mattresses across the hall into my room, and I consolidate my clothing onto a single shelf of the closet to make room for their clothes.  Across the hall a queen-sized mattress is brought up from the living room, where Idy had been sleeping alone, and Fina tacks a swatch of fabric up on the windows, instantly transforming the vibe from temporary residence into the most beautiful room in the house.  In her enormous trunk she has packed a seemingly limitless supply of dresses, each more beautiful than the next, and changes clothes several times a day.  Also in her trunk is a supply of hair and beauty products: when we get changed to go out at night I slip into a clean t-shirt and the only skirt I packed, and apply a layer of Burt's Bees lip shimmer; Fina pulls her hair back into a bun and attaches a false ponytail, colors her eyebrows with dark pencil, puts on lipstick, hoop earrings, and changes into a new dress.  She hangs onto the crook of my elbow as we make our way to a club a few blocks away, shifts to put her arm around my shoulder, and I feel the heat of her body radiating out from her armpit.  She is 27 years old to Idy's 45, and the mother of two.  Their marriage was arranged, as is the custom in Senegal.  She was born on the island of Cape Verde, where she was raised Christian and spoke Portuguese.  She has since learned French and Wolof, converted to Islam, and is trying to learn English.  "See you later," she says to me, by way of practice.

Her wide forehead and caramel skin remind me of the singer Sade, and spending time with her makes me feel like I'm 18 years old.  She tells naughty jokes about men who practice polygamy (including what she'd do to Idy if he ever took a second wife), sneaks sips from my beer when no one is looking (which is only available in clubs, as far as I can tell.  I haven't seen beer, wine, or liquor of any kind in any stores), and has a laugh as loud and instantaneous as a bike horn.   In the living room she braids her daughter's hair, and then does the same to S and K.  I shy away from it, self-conscious about my fine hair and what it would look like if Fina tried to braid it in corn rows.  I imagine I would look like a cross between Bo Derek in "10" and the guy with all the pins in his head from "Hellraiser."

Mustafah is intent on teaching us Wolof, every chance he gets he drills us with new words and verb conjugations.  Foy dem means where are you going, mangi dem means I'm going, funyou dem means where are we going.  I write down a list of words in a notebook, and try to memorize them:

Nanga def - how are you
Mangi firek - I'm fine
Jaru jef - thank you
Nokobo - you're welcome
Dem - verb, "to go"
Mangi dem - I'm going
Bosuba - until tomorrow
Ba banenyo - until next time
Djin - fish
Cani - spicy fish
Yassa - a spicy fish dish, one of Fina's signature dishes
Thieboudienne - a dish made from fish, rice, and tomato sauce
Mafe - stew
No to do - what's your name
Mangi to do - my name is
Kai nyu dem - let's go
Fetch - dance
Nechna - good (food)
Safna - delicious
Safool - not good
Rafetna - you're pretty
Buguna - I like
Lek - eating
Neerna - good
Nan - drink
Balma - please
Maima - give me
Ndoch - water

Idy's six year old son, Ibou (Idy calls him "Ma-Ibou" to differentiate between his son and nephew of the same name) and three year old daughter, Mamie, indulge in the attentions and affections of the household.  One evening E and I find ourselves at home alone with them, and they command our attention, taking us by the hand or saying "Hola! Hola!" until we watch them perform tricks - somersaults and cartwheels, and I understand through context that "hola!" means "look!"  Ma-Ibou pats my shoulder to get my attention and begins singing a song: "Buppolo solda," he begins, then improvises the sound of percussion: "gingee dek, gingee dek..."  I recognize the tempo and the beat, and in a couple minutes realize I've heard this song before -- he's singing Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier.  "Buffalo soldier," I begin to sing.  We make eye contact and I continue, he joins me on the vocalized percussion. "Gingee dek, gingee dek," we say together.  "Dreadlock Rasta.  There was a Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America..." 

Children are a fully integrated feature of life; two young girls cross the street and in the process get in the way of a motorcyclist, who weaves between them.  The older girl slaps the younger one across the cheek as some kind of punishment.  Idy and Mustafah don't hesitate to involve themselves, telling the girl who slapped not to treat her sister that way.  Another time, Idy stops a young child who is carrying a rock in his hand, and tells him to put it down.  "This one wanted to throw the rock to that one," he explains, and then laughs.  I've never seen adults take charge of children they aren't directly connected to, it makes me wonder how many of Idy's nephews are actually related to him by blood.  Perhaps Uncle is an honorary title for any adult male; I make a mental note to look into it.

The schedule is beyond relaxed; sometimes we don't eat dinner until after 10pm.  There is a lot of waiting involved in everything we do, and it extends into the outer world.  At the post office I wait for half an hour as a clerk turns the loose-leaf pages of a book of stamps, and I end up bringing the postcards that I'd meant to mail back home with me because there are no mailboxes in Dakar, if I want to mail something I have to go back to the post office, and that takes up too much time.  We learn to eat as much as possible at breakfast, because there's no telling when lunch will be.  Nothing works the way I expect it to - trying to contact people via cellphone is beyond frustrating.  I buy phone cards at the corner store where we buy bottled water by the six pack (we can't drink the water here, not even to brush our teeth), and it takes an entire phone card to figure out how to dial out properly.  When I do manage to get through to Chicago to talk to M, or other parts of Dakar to contact my old French teacher Abdou, who taught at the Alliance Française de Chicago until a few years ago, or my cousin Emilie's friend Ndeye, the connection is never reliable.  Calls get dropped mid-sentence, and phone batteries die quickly.  "Batteries don't last in Africa," Idy says, by way of explanation.  Suddenly the word "inshallah," spoken by everyone we come into contact with, makes sense.  It translates as "if God wills it," and people use it at the end of any sentence that has to do with the future, for example: we'll see you tomorrow, if God wills it.  Without a fully functioning infrastructure, anything and everything will happen if, and only if, you're lucky enough not to get stopped by some kind of obstacle.

E-mail is just as difficult as cellphones; we locate an Internet cafe, where for the equivalent of 50 cents I get 90 minutes of time, but the keyboard is incomprehensible.  It takes me half an hour to compose the following email to M:  

Subject:holy crap this is a messed up keyboard!

Im at a cybercafe and this keyboard is driving me cra< key:   Heres how it looks if I touch type:

Iù, qt q cybercqfe qnd this keyboqrd is driving ,e crqwy; 
for instance theres no < key:

No end to the chellenges I tell you; but having an a,a

at first it seemed scary to the eye because the dilapidated appearance of the city would be a signal of danger in the states; but its not the same here; theres just not very good infrastructure:  Idys entourage is always with us in one form or another; and one of them always sleeps on the couch by the front door which felt strange at first; but Idy is just looking out for us:  Were learning to eat west african style sharing a big bowl and eating without utensils using only the right hand, you would probably have gone without meals for the duration.  Im sure its just as entertaining for the guides to watch us try to figure out how to eat this way as it is for us:  They;re all very friendly and are constantly trying to teach us Wolof; heres what I can say: nanga def; it means how are you:  also wow means yes:

very hard to find internet and to type heres where I would type a question mark if I could find it:

saw some really cool drumming today and dancing; to,orrow we have our first dance class: 

miss you and love you,

Idy's entourage really did protect us; on New Year's Eve I get freaked out by all the firecrackers being set off in the Place De L'Indépendance.  They're being thrown everywhere, and I realize that we are surrounded by a mass of humanity, five women in a sea of men, some of them purposely throwing firecrackers near feet so that people jump.  I'd gotten singed by one a few days earlier -- it had ricocheted off the ground, exploded near my ear, and grazed me, so my tolerance for pyrotechnics had already dissipated.  "I want to get out of here," I say, feeling the wall of men close in on me.  Ibou takes me by the hand and walks me back home, talking to me the whole way to keep me calm.  "Don't worry," he says, "lots of people don't like firecrackers."  When I get home Fina is there, and she corroborates.  "I hate firecrackers," she says, "I never go out on New Year's Eve."

Having Idy's family in the house creates a sense of intimacy that I wasn't expecting, and makes me feel a bit like a voyeur.  A week into our stay three more guests arrive from Chicago and take over the room they had been staying in, sending them back downstairs to the living room with the queen-sized mattress.  I come home one night to find them asleep, Idy shirtless and sleeping on his side, his arm around Fina.  I tiptoe up the stairs to my room, not wanting to disturb them.  Late one afternoon Fina gives Mamie a bath in the courtyard, and the little girl comes indoors wearing nothing but a towel.  On another occasion I come downstairs to find Idy kneeling on a prayer rug, facing Mecca.  These are intimate family moments I never expected to see, and it makes me reflect on my own family.


Richard said...

You have the most interesting life.

JP said...

Reading these pages probably makes it sound more action packed than it really is - mostly my life is pretty standard: get up, go to work, come home... I was very lucky to be in a situation where I could travel far and wide after I was laid off, and I'm glad I did, I might never get another chance like that. It's funny to feel wistful about being unemployed, but it was great being able to do crazy stuff like this.