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.

Friday, August 6, 2010

We've been here for a week, but it feels like much longer - Senegal contd.

taxi cab
We've been here for a week, but it feels like much longer.  After breakfast we walk to the Centre Culturel Blaise Senghor for our dance class, or if we're feeling lazy we split into two cabs.  The fare is negotiated before we open the door to the cab, the price is bargained down by increments that sound impressive, but amount to less than a dollar.  The cabs are all dilapidated in one way or another -- the passenger side door doesn't open, or it can only be opened from the outside.  None of them have seat belts.  We pass a car that has no windows at all, two men riding in the front seats of a rusted shell that looks as if it might stop working at any moment.

Abdou in his home
There are no stop signs or traffic lights, but somehow the traffic circulates.  When Abdou, who was my French teacher in Chicago, picks me up from the house one afternoon, he points to a car in the parking lot across the street and says: "That was my first car in Dakar."  It takes me a minute to realize that he means that is the actual physical car he used to own, not just the same brand and model.  I grill him on all the things that don't make sense to me.  His is the only car I've seen that has seat belts.  "Why don't cars have seat belts here?" I ask. "This is Africa," he replies, as if this explains everything.  I continue in my line of questioning, which no doubt sounds infantile to him: "why do people throw garbage in the street?"  "This is Africa," he repeats, "if you tell someone not to throw garbage in the street they'll say 'why, is this your uncle's house?'"  At this he laughs, and I laugh along with him, although I don't get the joke.  He asks me how the trip is going.  "It's going great," I say, "but it's very different.  I thought I would be more prepared, having visited Morocco a few years ago, but..."  "This is Black Africa," he interjects, "this is different."  I'm dumbstruck by his pronouncement, and remain quiet for a moment.  Abdou has made a career as a journalist, and has traveled the world meeting dignitaries and interviewing heads of state.  He moved to the US with the idea that he could break into American journalism, "I thought I could get a job at the New York Times," he once told me.  When it turned out not to work out quite that easily, he turned to teaching.  He returned to Dakar four years ago, and runs his own PR firm.  He wears an ear bud constantly, and interrupts our conversation to take calls from clients. 

Car radios that work are tuned to loud music or talk shows.  There seems to be a penchant towards playing music loudly, no matter how cheap or tinny the sound system is.  One night at dinner the TV (which was only in the house for a few days) is tuned to a station playing music videos.  Fina joins us, and brings her cell phone downstairs.  Seemingly oblivious to the music that is already playing on the TV she begins playing a song on her phone and turns the sound up.  Music blares from vendor stalls on the side of the road, and from TVs in convenience stores.  One night we walk past a group of people watching TV out in the open, seated on folding chairs.

Our bodies are becoming used to the environment - some are having more luck than others.  My roommates both get upset stomachs; first A is up all night running to the bathroom, the next night it's her sister who's ill, then it reverts back to A again.  E has a bad reaction to her malaria pills because she takes one in the morning with breakfast just before dance class, and S gets sick from eating too much bread (she's allergic to wheat).  I keep expecting it to be my turn, but my body has reacted well so far.  I'm thankful for my gut of steel, or my luck of the draw, or whatever it is that's keeping everything in check.  I've learned to use very little water when I bathe, and very little toilet paper (we had to bring our own).  Our new-found habits are certainly more environmentally friendly, if not uncouth in western terms.  I joke that my mother would be so proud of me -- eating on the floor, sticking my hand right into communal plates of food.  Sleeping on the floor has gotten easier for me, but sitting cross-legged on the floor at dinner has gotten harder.  I shift and squirm at mealtimes, moving from one side to the other.  "What I wouldn't give for a table and chairs," I find myself saying to my roommates one night, just before drifting off to sleep.

The dancing is sublime, as I knew it would be.  It's not until after our first class that I feel like myself in this new place, my sweat pushing out any inhibitions and doubts I might have had about making this trip.  We practice our moves after dinner in the living room, Idy snapping his fingers to the beat and giving us notes on how to perfect our moves.  We're due to have a recital at the end of our stay, in the courtyard of the Centre Culturel Blaise Senghor.  We've watched other dance troupes practice there, moving with the grace and agility that comes from a lifetime of dancing.  From time to time we're invited to participate, the dancers approach the perimeter of the room where we are generally seated, take us by the hand, and pull us into their dance.  As with anything, if I don't think about what I look like while I'm dancing, I do just fine.

We venture out into the city as a group, touring the fish market, and an area known as the Village Artisanal where vendors have set up their wares in booths.  If a vendor catches my eye they speak to me, and sometimes take me by the hand, walk me into their shop, show me their wares and tell me they'll give me a good price.  Idy and Mustafah act as intermediaries for us, bartering and negotiating prices.  I end up buying some fabric; two miniature buses made to look like the Touba buses -- Renault vans that have been colorfully painted and are used as public transportation; carved masks depicting the seven days of the week; and three hand painted signs -- two listing prices for haircuts, one listing prices for the treatment of various medical ailments.  The highest price for a men's hair cut is listed next to the word "toubab" (white person).  I get home before I realize that one of the panels on the medical ailments sign shows a man farting, painted lines emanating from his buttocks into a cloud that is surrounded by flies.  Another shows a man vomiting, "look," I say to my roommates, "it's you!"
women's hairstyles
men's hairstyles

medical ailments

toy Touba bus
Touba, public transportation
stomach ailments