Saturday, September 18, 2010

September 18th - Thies

I am hot and sweaty; we've been driving on the highway in a rented van for the past couple of hours.  The van is filled to capacity - there's a narrow aisle squeezed between a row of one-person seats and benches that fit three comfortably and four squashed; once a row has been filled there is a collapsible seat that folds down between the two sides, creating a pokey, rickety seat for some unlucky person.  As usual, there are no seat belts.  I don't even look for them anymore.
Inside the van - note the falling apart ceiling on the right.

Another interior shot - note the photos of the driver's Marabou (spiritual adviser)
In front of Idy's father's home
Traffic inches forward, and on the side of the highway vendors sell batteries, bottled water, and phone cards.  They approach the vehicle, their hands inches from the open windows.  We exit off the highway and take a smaller road filled with pot holes that the driver swerves to miss, and drive past vendors selling meat in stalls - whole limbs of animals on tables in the open air, covered in flies that no one swats away.  The paved road ends and we continue on a red dirt road, a cloud of dust following us, until we approach a building in the center of the village Idy grew up in.  The moment the vehicle approaches, children start running towards it.

A young boy in Thies
Another interior shot
Interior of Idy's father's house
We descend the vehicle and are led to a building that is mercifully cool and dark inside, my eyes feel singed by the sun and my body weakened by the heat.  We are presented to a tall man with a lined face who is introduced to us as Idy's father; I can see the resemblance.  We're invited to rest in a bedroom off the main hallway.  Outside, children look in at us through the open windows.  I lie down on a rug and close my eyes, but my rest is interrupted shortly by a group of rangy teenage girls who fill the room and begin to dance to music playing from cell phones, pulling me away from the wall and asking me to join them.  Exhausted, I do my best to oblige, then find a moment to escape into the heat and sunlight of the outdoors.

I explore the compound; there are several buildings creating a kind of circle, and in the center several women prepare what looks like a huge meal.  On one side of the compound are a row of toilet stalls, which are comprised of a drain in a sunken hollow with foot-shaped indents on either side indicating where to squat.  There is no flushing mechanism, instead a colorful object that looks like a kettle rests just outside the stalls.  I've seen these kettles on the streets in Dakar and had misunderstood their functionality for several days; I thought they were pretty, and had considered trying to buy one to bring back with me.  The bathroom stalls are clean and airy, a lot more pleasant than the ones at the Centre Blaise Senghor, or the ones I've encountered on the highway between Chicago and Michigan, for that matter.

There are goats tied to fence posts, and at least one donkey, which appears on the road bearing the weight of a young boy.  I join my fellow travelers, who have found a place to sit just outside the main house, surrounded by children.   One little girl has installed herself on a lap; she is shy, but very comfortable where she is.  I find a spot to sit down, and momentarily I feel a strange sensation on my scalp, like I've backed up into some leaves.  I turn to see what it could be, and half a dozen children scatter behind me, giggling.  A boy who looks to be about seven or eight years old looks me in the eye and says: "Bic."  "Pardon?" I ask him in French, "donne-moi un Bic," he repeats.  He is serious in his request, no trace of humor on his face.  We were prepared for this; back in Chicago, the women who'd been on this tour before told us to bring gifts for the children: chap stick; hair-ties; pens; paper.  Idy collected them all and had distributed them from the van, where he held court like Santa Claus.  I don't have any more pens on me - I turned them all over to Idy.  "Desole," - sorry, I say to the boy.  He looks at me dubiously.  Later, Idy approaches me and asks if I have any more chap stick - I'd brought six with me as gifts and they were a big hit.  I don't have any more, and I quietly curse the moment at Trader Joe's when I made the decision to buy just six instead of two or three dozen; they came in packages of three for $2.49 each, would it have killed me to spend another $10 or $20?

Idy distributing gifts
I take my camera out, and immediately groups of children begin posing for me.  This is the only place we've been where people want me to take their picture, except for the women - who look at me and shake their heads "no" when I bring the camera to my face.  I hold my hands up and nod, and put the camera away.  The children, however, want to see their likeness on the screen of my digital camera.  One boy follows me from place to place, striking poses that he thinks will be interesting, in the hopes that I will take his picture.  There's a grown man who also wants me to take his picture; he poses with his son, placing the young boy on a drum. 
Father and son posing

We are called to dinner; our group gets a prime spot on the floor of Idy's father's house, outside the rest of the clan sits where they can.  We eat, and I am extra careful not to use my left hand - at the house in Dakar I've slipped once or twice, but it's understood that as visitors we don't completely understand the gravity of this offense, although Malaal once corrected S with unusual sternness.  S is a leftie, so this arrangement has been especially difficult for her to adapt to.  Afterward we walk to a small hill about a hundred yards from the house where drummers have begun to practice.  With light still left in the sky, the rest of the clan arrives, dressed to the nines.  There is dancing, and we are pulled into the fray - the teenage girls who had been practicing earlier take me by the hand and there is no refusing them.  A small child had planted herself on my lap and even this is no excuse; the woman next to me takes the toddler from me and I do my best to follow the dancing girl's lead; she stands across from me and looks me in the eye, I mimic her movements to the best of my ability, letting go of my inhibitions, and quite aware that all eyes are on me.  Moments earlier A had slipped and fallen while dancing, which caused quite an uproar.

When there is no light left in the sky some men bring loudspeakers and a microphone into the circle and begin singing praises to Idy, who enters the circle and dances to his extended family's delight.  I consider the fact that Idy is related to every single person in this village; I consider that this is where he came from, and that most of what he earns in Chicago is very likely sent back here.  I think about how much of the year he spends away from his family.  Entire villages, I've been told, have no grown men left - they've all gone to Europe or the United States to work, sending their earnings back home, some of them unable to return for years at a time.  I am sad and amazed and in awe all at once.  It is overwhelming, and beautiful, and exhausting. 

On the ride back to Dakar several older women ride with us part of the way; they talk and laugh, and break into song spontaneously, singing praises to Idy.

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