Friday, August 27, 2010

It happened so quickly...

I'm not sure which I heard first - the sound of footfalls landing hard and fast behind us, or screaming.  We had spent a relaxed evening strolling through the neighborhood, and then went for a walk along the oceanfront.  We stopped at the statue of Diouf, Senegal's star soccer player, their Maradonna.  We took pictures of each other posing next to it.  We moved like an amoeba along the ocean's edge, stopping to look out onto the horizon, climb rocks, and take pictures.  Idy suggested returning to the house (why do I always remember these kinds of details after the fact?) but there was a drumming circle up ahead that we wanted to explore.  We ventured off the path, away from the street lights (the only streetlights I remember seeing in Dakar) and began hiking over a hill towards the music.  There were six of us, Idy and five women.  And then, and then... I think it was the screaming I heard first, and then the footfalls, although that's out of sequence.  Memory can be deceiving.  We had split into two groups - me, Idy, S and A in front, and a few yards behind us, E and K.  The sounds of running, the sounds of someone - or some ones, being knocked to the ground.  A heard something, and turned around to see this: her sister on the ground, an unknown person dragging her by the feet.  It was then that she started screaming, it was then that my brain was pierced with reality.

Diouf and friends
There were two of them in the dark with us.  "Run," A screamed, and then "RUUUUN!"  My pupils dilated, and I could see every tree root and pebble on the ground in front of me.  I ran as fast and as hard as I could to where the edge of the path met the highway.  There was nowhere else to run unless I went into the busy road.  I turned around and counted.... there were 1,2,3,4,5 of us - all the women were accounted for.  The instant that A began screaming, Idy bent to the ground and picked up a rock in each hand.  He threw one at the attackers, then ran towards them with the other.  Set against the dark blue sky, it was like watching wood cutouts in stop motion animation.  I could hardly believe that I was here in this moment, watching this, right here, right now, my dance teacher fighting off two assailants.  The attackers retreated, running back in the direction they'd come from.  Idy joined us at the lip of the highway.

"Cowards," he spat, his brow furrowed, "they were just kids."  "You're bleeding," I said.  "Your hand, and your face."  Idy touched his face where he'd sustained a small cut, then looked at his hand, where another small cut was visible.  "What about you?" Idy asked E and K, who'd been jumped.  K checked herself - a small tear in her dress, nothing more; E looked at her arm and for the first time noticed the trail of blood that started at her shoulder and ran all the way to her fingertips.  She lifted her ripped shirtsleeve and exposed the wound, an asterisk of open flesh.  I did exactly what you're not supposed to do when someone's been injured -- my eyes popped open, my jaw dropped and I slapped my hand to my wide-open mouth.  I might have said something horrible like "OH MY GOD!"  E, cool under pressure, said "let's not make it out to be worse than it is," closed her hand around the wound to slow the bleeding.  "Let's get back home," Idy said, and flagged two cabs down.

I got in a cab with S and E, S instructing her roommate to "breathe..."  The two of them breathed together, E closing her eyes and inhaling deeply, then exhaling slowly.  E's bleeding arm was next to me.  "I have a washcloth," I said, dug into my backpack and grabbed for it with shaking fingers.  I handed it to E and she pressed it against the wound.  The blue terrycloth turned red in an ever-widening circle.  E continued to breathe deeply, and I closed my eyes.  I felt lightheaded, as if it were me who was losing blood in the backseat of a Senegalese cab.

Fina wasn't home, Mustafah was watching Ma-Ibou and Mamie.  "Take them out of here," E said as the kids began drawing near with curiosity.  I nodded, led them upstairs with A and distracted them with crayons and paper.  Idy followed momentarily.  "We're going to the clinic," he said.  He kneeled and looked into his children's eyes, implored them to be good for me and the Polish sisters, then left the house with E, S, and Mustafah.

Mamie looked at me, opened her mouth and showed me what was inside -- the remains of a chewed up crayon, then closed her jaw tight.  "Spit it out!" I said, my hand in front of her mouth.  She would not be moved.  "Crache-le!" I said in French, hoping this would register.  The child would not respond.  "This is going to be a long night," I said, inserting my index finger between her lips until she opened her mouth and allowed me to remove the bits of crayon.

Our babysitting stint was mercifully brief, in what seemed like less than an hour everyone returned; E with a stitched up arm and a prescription for antibiotics, Idy with a bandage on his hand.  We spent the next hours rehashing the scene: the attackers had waited for an opportunity, we decided.  They watched our pack split into two groups, then made their move.  We'd started to feel at home, and become too relaxed -- in Chicago, we would never stroll along the lakefront path at night.  We'd become comfortable, too comfortable -- we drew attention; we were goofing off and had let our guard down.  "Well," S said to E, "if we weren't friends yet, we're friends now!"

Idy felt terrible, nothing like this had ever happened in over ten years of bringing people to Senegal for this tour.  When Fina walked through the door full of sprightly energy, he touched her arm, took her aside, explained in Wolof.  She was livid.  "It does something to me that this happened to you," she said to us, her eyes welling with tears, "and A -- you see your sister on the ground, you don't scream, you kick and punch!"  She said, taking a swipe at the air as she spoke.  "If I'd been there..." she trailed off, shaking her head.  Then she told us stories of how she'd defended herself in the past; how she was on a crowded bus once and felt someone get too close, reached into her purse for a razor blade, and cut the man before turning to see that it was someone she knew.

The second group of women were due to arrive -- two Swiss sisters, B and F, and their friend C, who were joining us for the second week of the tour, then heading north for some exploring on their own.  Unlucky as their timing was, we welcomed them and updated them on the events of the evening.  They moved into the room previously occupied by Idy and his family.  Restless and unsure of what to do next, we went to a neighborhood club and danced the night away to a live Cuban band.  We danced hard, sweating away our insecurities, metabolizing the adrenaline that had built up in our bloodstreams.  We counted our blessings: nothing had been stolen, E's purse was ripped, but nothing was missing from it; K's camera made a funny noise when she turned it on and off, but it still worked; K had bruises, but nothing more; we had another week to ease the shock of the evening's unhappy incident with newer, better ones.

We went to bed at 3:30a.m., a little shaken, a little wiser, a little more tightly knit together.


Midtagessen said...

Funny the things that bring you closer together. Glad you survived it...I felt almost smelt the fear in your description. I do enjoy your writing!

JP said...