Sojourn in Senegal
|||Boat tour in Senegal comes with colorful character|
|||If you go ...|
By Linda Taylor
Special to The Advertiser
"Lady, you come my shop!" "Madame, ici!" "Sister, for you, special price!"
It is our first day in Senegal, and we have spent the morning shopping in the market in Dakar, the capital of this West African nation, population 2 million.
Once we turn a corner and a small man shouts in delight at my daughter, "Sona Diamanka!" her village name (we know her as Betsy Polhemus). He is her favorite fabric vendor. He balances a stack of a dozen indigo pieces on his head, his arms draped with rugs.
We admire and compare, study the patterns, while he and my daughter haggle over price in pulaar, one of the country's languages. My daughter is a practiced bargainer. We saw this last night when we spilled out of the airport, jet-lagged and laden with our gear and gifts for the village. Surrounded by shouting cab drivers, she coolly and fluently exchanges insults, her eyebrows feigning shock at the asking prices. As my sister and I watch in bemused exhaustion, my daughter's boyfriend leans over to us and says, "she's the best."
One driver, finally throwing up his hands in disgust, agreed to a much-reduced fare to our hotel. The cab was ancient, battered, all insulation gone from the inside doors. But the price was right.
Today, she banters price with the fabric vendor, buying at half his first asking price two rugs and a fine piece of deep indigo. He glares as he exchanges goods for money, then smiles widely as we turn away, shouting his last blessing.
My sister and I, babes in these woods, have read the travelers' cautions and are determined that no cunning amoebae will invade our digestive systems. We're about to put all that information to the test.
'Stomach' and 'other' mother
In March 2001, my daughter left for the Peace Corps in Senegal. Now my sister and I are making a pilgrimage to a place that it would never have occurred to us to want to see, the village of Saare Foode, population perhaps 200, a painful 14-hour drive south of Dakar. I am drawn by the stories of her village family.
My daughter's "other mother" I am the "stomach mother" is a tiny, durable woman, barely past my armpit when we stand arm in arm. When we arrive, I hug her bird bones. She sits next to me on a bed, speaking to me through our daughter. This is why I came to Senegal to meet her. We are both frustrated that we cannot talk easily. My daughter has an entire village family here.
The "other mother" darts out of the round, thatched hut and comes back cradling her son's new baby, barely a month old. We admire the child. Perfect fingers and toes.
Later, in my daughter's hut, my sister and I lower the mosquito netting and stretch out on the foam mattress. There are no pillows my daughter said she once had some, but people kept borrowing them, and they came back with head lice. Never mind. We roll up clothes. I read for a very little by the light of a small, white candle stuck to the edge of a trunk. Louis L'Amour was good for the dirt streets of Kaolack. Isabel Allende finally makes sense to me in a small tropical village.
We wake to the sound of millet pounding. Amoebae have gotten past my sister's defenses, and she looks a little queasy when the breakfast bowl of millet porridge is set on the floor before us. We are lucky. Guests may eat alone in my daughter's hut, sparing us the embarrassment of not eating a meal that has taken so long to prepare. Guests also get to use spoons instead of fingers.
The porridge has a slightly bitter, earthy taste, so we devise a plan. My daughter will eat from three sides of our communal bowl and perhaps they will just think us light eaters. This works except when my daughter forgets to use all three spoons. Her village brother comes in and admonishes her, shaking his head. He worries that we will starve. This is unlikely. My sister and I carry twice the weight of anyone in the village.
Barefoot in the mud
Later in the village, a boy passes on an old bicycle with a cooler lashed to the back. He is ringing a bell to drum up trade, a local Good Humor man. He sells bessop juice, frozen in small plastic bags or chilled in plastic bottles. The juice tastes like grape cranberry with mint. I like the frozen best, like biting just the right size hole in the corner of the bag to slurp out the crystals without dripping sticky purple on my khakis.
It is late afternoon, cooler. We are going to the rice fields, my daughter's other mother leading the way as we slog barefoot through ankle-deep mud. I believe this is another of those activities the traveler health guide suggests is unwise. I pause and pull one foot out of the muck my toe ring has been sucked off. Gone! My precious!
Later, we bathe behind my daughter's hut, sluicing off with water she carries from the well in bright plastic buckets. I use the leftover water for laundry, scrubbing out rice-paddy mud with my knuckles. Clothes drip from the fence surrounding her small backyard garden facility (a concrete hole in the ground that serves as a toilet). I hate it. My sister is battling diarrhea, I am constipated. We both whimper when we head to the back yard.
Still, it has been a good day, and for dinner there is rice and chicken and a special small dish of potatoes and black-eyed peas cooked in tomato sauce and spices. We eat our share, and my daughter's brother looks relieved when he comes to survey our bowl. I lie under the mosquito net, sunburned and content.
The next day is the day of the naming ceremony for the new baby it has been postponed until we arrive. The pounding of millet and rice begins early, and my daughter's brother walks past us carrying the goat that will be dinner. My sister and I are careful not to look we prefer goat in the abstract. Breakfast is sketchy. The dirt of the compound is swept clean, the laundry taken in.
My daughter's village sister-in-law emerges from her hut dressed in new clothing, her ears gleaming with jewelry purchased the day before. The rest of the family is still in working clothes. Another sister rides into the compound on the back of a motorbike. The baby will be named after her, and she has come many miles for the celebration. She hops off the bike and shakes the dust from her bright clothing. The family was not sure her husband would allow her to come, and they hurry to greet her.
Women begin to gather, coming from the neighboring compounds and a nearby village. They are dazzling in their fine clothes and head wraps. Children trail after the women, some so shy they hide behind their mother's skirts. Others march up and stare at my sister and me. White people. I think my daughter is not quite a white person any longer, but we two are a novelty. Men drift into the compound and settle near the chief's hut. The greetings are unhurried, a formal ritual carefully observed.
A large mat is placed in front of the chief's hut. This is his granddaughter being named today, taking the name of his only daughter. The family members take their places on the mat, the baby held by her aunt and her mother sitting next to them. Four women hold the corners of a sheet over the mat, for shade and to hold gifts of money.
My daughter has told us the ceremony is simple. After prayers, an elder male will shave the baby's head and say her name publicly for the first time. Then the guests will throw money in the sheet and the party will begin.
My sister and I watch the chief begin to sharpen a large kitchen knife. Our eyes slide sideways as we look at each other. I think we are both resolving not to watch, but before I can snap my eyes shut, the elder lifts a yellow disposable safety razor and draws it carefully over that tiny fuzzy head. Done. My sister and I are giddy with relief until my daughter tells us the elder was sharpening the knife to kill the goat.
The gathering splits in two the men stay around the chief's hut and the women crowd into his wife's. My daughter's mother is a practiced hostess, urging us to eat balls of sweet, sticky rice and millet for good luck. We must take some home; she insists it will keep for months. Women and the babies are tucked on every available surface of the two full-size beds and a few small chairs. Their cheerful chatter fills the hut; I am almost dizzy with the noise and heat.
Village in grief
Suddenly a woman bursts into the hut and shouts something, quick and brittle. There is a brief moment of stunned silence, broken by a single wail that chills the soul. The wail is echoed by every woman in the room; they rush to the door. It is a young woman in the next compound; pregnant, she has just died in hospital.
The rest of the day is a haze of distant wailing and hushed conversations as people drift in and out of our compound. Only one of the guests has a vehicle, and he is dispatched to pick up the body. Later, he drives past the compound with the body wrapped in plastic, strapped to his truck. Burials must take place within a day, and we see a group of men walking away from the village with shovels. The graves are not marked; the mother will not know where her daughter is buried.
The baby's mother changes from her new clothes and starts a cooking fire there is so much food and people will still eat. But the women who would have prepared the naming dinner are instead preparing the dead woman for burial. One of the women guests returns to help with the food, tying an old pareu over her clothes. Later she tells my daughter wryly, "I came to party, and now I'm cooking."
It is a bright moonlit night. We sit outside and listen to the renewed wailing as the burial party passes by. There is some shrugging of shoulders; she did not take care of herself, refused the free prenatal care available in the next village. My daughter translates bitter stories of family members enraged that the doctors could not save her, of fights over clothing as they dressed her for burial.
My daughter's mother is worried. A woman who dies with her unborn child brings bad luck to the family, and this is a relative. Clouds blot out the moon, and we rush inside to avoid a sudden downpour. The next day my daughter hears that it rained only here, only over these few huts.
When we leave, it is such a quiet leaving nothing as I had imagined. I have come to Senegal to meet my daughter's mother. I am curious about this woman who is as much a mother to my child as I am who advises her and scolds her and worries over her and loves her, and who now I can see will miss this shared daughter as fiercely when she leaves the village as I do when my daughter leaves me.
Barely an hour later, my sister, daughter and I are floating in the hotel pool in Kolda, the main city in this region. Joe Cocker blasts from the bar's sound system. We are perhaps four miles from the village in another world.
Later, my sister asks me what is most memorable about this journey, and I tell her my daughter. Somewhere on some rutted road I realized in surprise that my entire well-being, safety, pleasure and day-to-day life was in the hands of my daughter. Next I realized that did not worry me in the least.
|Linda Taylor with her colorful, hand-printed Senegalese fabrics. Her daughter, Betsy Polhemus, a Peace Corps veteran and expert haggler, made the price right.|
Frank the Fisherman operates a boat that will take us on a tour of the mangrove islands, runs a small gift shop with his sister, and is a friend of the woman who operates the only restaurant in sight.
It is late afternoon and, walking through thick vegetation, we do not see the water until we are almost on it. No sand beaches here, and the shallow water is dark from the underlying mud. We scramble into one of the long wooden fishing boats with the help of Frank and two teenage boys.
With a little coaxing, the outboard sputters to life, and we glide away from the wooden pier. There is no hint of the Atlantic here except the salty water. A wide channel runs between a continuous ribbon of mangrove islands and coast-hugging mangroves. The water has a light, fading sheen. Now and then Frank points out a bird or a baobab tree rising above the understory, but he is not committed to tour-guide chatter. It is completely peaceful and timeless.
We glide into a sliver of broken-shell beach, and one of the boys jumps out to pull the boat out of the current. My imagination kicks in what if we four get out of the boat and they leave us? Where are we? How much water do we have with us, and mosquito repellent? Should we sleep in trees? Maybe a cell phone is a good idea after all. My brain skitters around too many heart-of-darkness scraps from ancient college literature courses.
The boys stay with the boat and we follow Frank. The path is a faint line through grass and scrubby bushes, steep in places as we climb an abrupt hill. I have a memory flash of clambering up the red-dirt trail between Kane'ohe and Kahalu'u in search of palapalai ferns. Franks tells us in his careful English that sometimes this small island is used for military training they drop the soldiers for two nights to practice survival skills. He shows us places were they might camp.
We stop before the remains of a village that was once here an ancient baobab tree so huge we cannot see the top from this perspective. It is too dim under its branches to take pictures, but it is many arms around, leaning a bit into the hill. Further along is a group of three younger baobab, with a small cave-like opening nestled between them. Sacrifices were made here, Frank says. Do I believe him? It doesn't matter. Frank has his truths and I have an island memory. It seems a fair exchange.
We slip-slide down the other side of the island and crunch our way to the boat along a thin shell rim like dancing on the edge of a pie crust. Seen from the water, the baobab looms serenely on the crown of the hill, but diminished somehow.
Frank and the boys are talking, and the boat glides out of the main channel through a break in the line of green. We round a curve and before us is a small mangrove islet, perhaps a quarter-acre of graceful tree roots rising from the water. As we slide into view, a half-dozen pelicans soar from the mangrove branches. They are pearly in the dimming twilight, breathtaking.
We drift around the mangrove island until nearly dark. This is a bird condo. Dozens, hundreds perhaps, come and go, settling in for the night. I like best the bright yellow ones that hang upside down from round ball nests (feeding dizzy chicks?).
Next morning, the boat heads south, passing a few villages. We pull into the long pier of a commercial fishing village, a small town, really. Frank takes us through a commercial fish-processing operation built by the Japanese. They left after a couple of years, but the local manager and his crew still process kamaboko for the Dakar market.
As we leave, the early morning haze has burned off. It is hot, and we have a long way back. Frank distracts us with a joke in measured English.
It seems there was a famous oceanography professor who has come to the area to study the water life. His guide is a young man, and while they are on the water one day, the professor asks the young man if he studies psychology. When the young man says no, the professor exclaims, "then you have wasted one seventh of your life!" He asks if the young man studies sociology or ecology or theology, and with each "no" cries out at the waste of another seventh of his life.
Just as the professor asks the seventh question, the boat hits a submerged tree and begins to sink. As the professor is floundering in the water, the young man shouts to him, "well, professor, and have you studied swimology?"
I am entranced by this joke. It reminds me of the ones my son loved when he was about 7. I laugh at the joke and at laughing, and at the sheer pleasure of Frank's aplomb in telling a good joke in a third, maybe fourth, language.
My sister perches happily on the bow of the boat on the way back. I drip sweat and Frank unfurls an umbrella over me. My sister looks back and remarks dryly that it looks a little too colonial.
We spend part of the afternoon in Frank's tiny gift shop under the watchful eye of his formidable sister. Frank scoops up any object our eyes rest on oh so briefly, explaining it was made by "family." Perhaps; it doesn't matter.
Frank's friend's cousin meets us the next morning to drive us away. We wave goodbye to Frank the Fisherman's clan and drive past the row of empty tourist shops. The driver takes a different road out of Toubakouta, and we laugh as we pass through an area full of shops and restaurants. Canny Frank.
If you go ...
WHAT AND WHERE: The official name of the country is the Republique du Sénégal, a developing country in Western Africa that won independence from France in 1960. French is the official language; English is widely spoken; several local languages also are spoken.
GETTING THERE: Options include New York to Dakar on South African Air, Air France from Paris, South African Airways from New York (JFK Airport) or Iberia Air from Madrid. Fares vary widely, with from Honolulu costs as much as $2,500. Check with a travel agent who specializes in Europe/Africa travel.
GETTING AROUND: Rental cars are expensive and the roads can be terrible, packed with buses or minibuses or in bad repair if you go off the main track. However, travel is cheap though rather grueling via bush taxi or sept place cars, usually Peugeot 504s with three rows of seats. There's a decent train on Wednesdays from Dakar through Kaolack and Tambacounda to Mali.
CLIMATE: Senegal is tropical: hot and humid. It has a rainy season (June to October) and a dry season (November to May) dominated by the hot, dry harmattan wind.
CULTURE AND RELIGION: Dakar (population 2.2 million) is a large, sophisticated, French-speaking capital, a favorite of travelers to West Africa. Senegalese are 92 percent Muslim, generally of a mellow stripe. Senegal's music is not to be missed. The top star, Youssou N'Dour, combines traditional mbalax music and Western pop, rock and soul, and has an international following.
CURRENCY: The CFA (African Financial Community) franc. The official rate of exchange fluctuates daily. $1 equals about 690 FCFA.
WILDLIFE: The best place to see African wildlife is the Niokolo-Koba national park in the rather remote southeast, but don't expect big game to compare with Kenya. Senegal is a paradise, however, for bird-watchers.
HEALTH AND SAFETY: You need a passport but not a visa if your stay is less than 90 days. Malaria, yellow fever and cholera are risks; check www.mdtravelhealth.com/destinations/africa/senegal.html for requirements and consult a travel-medicine clinic to acquire appropriate shots and medications. If you are traveling with children, you will be asked for documentary evidence of your relationship to the child. Several types of items including computers and computer parts, video cameras and players, stereo equipment, tape players, auto parts, and various tools and spare parts cannot be brought into Senegal without clearance by Senegalese customs officials. Get the latest information on entry requirements from the Senegal Embassy, 2112 Wyoming Avenue N.W., Washington, DC 20008, telephone (202) 234-0540. A long-standing armed conflict in the southwest especially the city of Ziguinchor, the area of Cap Skirring and the Casamance region is best avoided.
MORE INFORMATION: travel.state.gov/senegal.html; www.senegal-tourism.com.