A Closer Look at Life

July! While I have been praising each and every rainstorm that comes my way by running out into the downpour and doing a jig, at the same time I cannot help but think about my home in Nebraska and the people there who are experiencing a very different July than I am here in Senegal. There are many upsides to working in agriculture and the rewards are tangible. But there is one big downside: Your very being, everything that you have worked so hard for is utterly intertwined with the finicky, indecisive, and ever temperamental weather patterns. My heart goes out to my home state and all of the people (including my own father) who are being substantially affected by the drought. As I explained to the people in my village, we must be grateful for the rain here, but there are others in the world who are not as lucky. They couldn’t believe what I was telling them. Americans won’t have as much money and food if it doesn’t rain too?!?

With all the field work and absence of lethargies that hot season brings, I haven’t been counting down the days until I can get out of village into the land of electric fans and ice. I am simply enjoying working hard, side by side, with the people of my village as we race against the rains to get everything planted in time. The only time I leave village is when I go to Velingara to collect my mail, recharge all my first world technology I have decided it’s okay not to do without (cellphone, laptop,…), and send emails and blogs out into the world to let people know I’m alive and well. Today, I finally decided it was time for a break and with the free Peace Corps ride with the air conditioned cab and excessive amount of room, it was really a no brainer. Aw, the things you start to appreciate when living in Senegal. So here I am deliberating on how best to go about telling you about my last couple of weeks in village. Often in village it seems as though my life is compartmentalized. It is easier for me to deal with things in separate sections. Thus in this blog I will do the same for my readers..

Dealing with Ramadan

Living in a Muslim country has been one of the best parts of my experience here. It makes me realize that although the United States is definitely diverse, we are still overwhelmingly culturally and traditionally a Christian nation. I love waking briefly at sunrise to the Call of Prayer, half yell, half song, that floats over the entire village from the lungs of one of the frailest elders. I am amazed that such a beautiful and haunting voice can come from a body weighed down by the brick years of a life in rural Africa. I love the chance it gives me to live among a completely new and interesting culture and religion, fraught with its own inconsistencies and hypocrisies just like Christianity, but with people who worship God just as reverently as the Christians I know in my hometown. It is a fascinating portrayal of life and I am honored to be privy to it.

This being said, now is the month of Ramadan or Sue-may-ee as pronounced phonetically in Pulaar. Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and is one of the most important observances of the Muslim religion. During this month, Muslims are required to fast between sunrise and sunset. It is meant to refocus the eye back on God and away from materialistic and worldly observances. This means no eating and no drinking all day long. While I am impressed by the tradition and devotion in which my village dedicates to the month of Ramadan, I have to admit that as an agricultural person, it comes at quite a difficult time right in the middle of rainy season. Also, even though there are some Christians in my village, the population is majority Muslim which means there is pressure for me to join them in their fasting. Every day people ask me if I am fasting. And I tell them honestly, I am trying.  More than anything, the chief, who I admire more than anyone in my entire village, is soooo proud of me and gives me an extra helping of bread and coffee, which is what we use to break our fast at sundown.

But here is my dilemma: If I want to continue working in the fields in the morning and evening, it is not possible for me not to eat or drink water. Most people go out early in the morning, but by the time they hit 2 o’clock with no food they are once again back to the hot season pace of life. Some of the more ambitious farmers defy the pangs of hunger and the sting of dry throats and go back out into the field in the evenings. I am not one of them. I am stuck in a moral tug of war.

Remain in solidarity and respect with my Muslim village and enjoy the extra cups of delicious village Kinkiliba (my favorite coffee/tea that is a staple of Senegalese/Pular breakfast) or admit my defeat and eat at the children’s bowl for lunch? I realize my moral code is not functioning at a high level in this decision, but this time I have decided to have my cake and eat it too. After working in the field for the morning I go back into my hut to “take a nap”. I lock my door and with guilty conscience gulp down two big cups of water. Then I scrounge around in my trunk for one of the Mountain House meals that Grampy and Mom often send me. Unfortunately, my packages have dwindled and only one beef stroganoff dinner remains. Spaghetti and meatballs in a bag never tasted so good as in the middle of Ramadan. There in the darkness of my hut, I cook my American camping lunches and quickly shovel down the food under the cloak of guilt and misgivings.

I am in Kolda at the moment attempting to realign my attitude for village life during Ramadan. I have attempted to fast and find that my brain moves at the pace of molasses in winter especially when I try and speak Pular, which is all the time in village. I then have to rein in my lioness of a temper, constantly being prodded by my ever charming counterpart as I try to not regress into physical violence as he once again tells me that I only speak Pular “seda tun” (a little bit). Yes, I am a victim of becoming hangry, and it turns out in the end I am not a very good Muslim. More on Ramadan after this next stint in village…

A Birth, A Death, and a Close up Look at How Fragile Life Really Is

The story I am about to tell you has impacted me more than almost any other day in my Senegalese life thus far. I realize that as my Pular becomes clearer and my relationships within my village strengthen these moving experiences become more common and I am grateful for that. But on this day, Tuesday, July 24, 2012 I was intertwined in life and death all within one morning in a Senegalese village. I had one of the happiest moments of my village life followed by one of the saddest moments in the time it takes for thunder to follow lightning.

In order to understand my story, I will preface it with a little backround information. In Pulaar culture, when a new baby is born, there is always a naming ceremony. It is similar to my experience with the baptisms I am familiar with in the United States. Even now as I try to describe this to you, I am not sure whether to say in Muslim culture, Pulaar culture, Senegalese culture, or African culture. I find it curious sometimes that although I am so immersed in the life here, because I only have a very specific experience (that of an African, Senegalese, Muslim, Pulaar village), I am not even sure what culture or tradition the naming ceremony falls under. Side note to myself: Research this point when I have internet.

Anyway, in Pulaar the naming ceremony is called a dennabo and it is traditionally a week from the day the baby was born. Until that day, the baby is without a name and it is kept a secret until the moment the name is spoken aloud to the guests at the dennabo for the first time.  All the village elders attend to bless the baby and at each gathering you can find the old men sitting in a circle on the brightly woven plastic mats spread out for them under the thatched shade structure or mango tree within the family’s compound. I love these men, the way they greet me and make fun of my last name and look so distinguished in their billowing white robes and white skull caps, a string of worn prayer beads busy in their hands.

The new mother and baby sit inside one of the huts. This is where the women gather to look at the baby and wish peace and health upon mother and newborn. Usually the older women family members like aunts and grandmothers stay there throughout the celebration to take the traditional gifts of bowls of corn or small monetary offerings. Sometime during the morning, the chief or one of the other elders shouts out the name that the father has secretly divulged earlier that morning. And walaa! Like that the baby has a name and while the baby’s head is being shaved, the father kills a goat or sheep in celebration.

Another crucial component to the naming ceremony is the tradition of the tocara. I think I have described a tocara in some of my previous blogs, but let me put it now into context. A tocara is a namesake and is very important to relationships built within Senegalese culture. If someone has the same name as you, it is a special bond even if you have just met the person while buying a kilo of mangoes. I am blessed with many tocaras as Mariama is the equivalent of an American Sarah or Emily. While it is correct to call someone a tocara if they have your same name, a real true-blue tocara is the actual person you were named for at your naming ceremony. So, for me, my true tocara is my counterpart’s wife Mariama Dufe who I was named for when I moved to Sinchurio. Dennabo is to baptism as tocara is to godmother. Usually true tocaras keep a close relationship for the rest of their lives.

On Tuesday the 24th I donned my traditional ceremonial dress, the blue striped leppi fabric characteristic of Pulaars and walked the 5 seconds along the sand path that connects my compound to my friend Korde’s compound, who had just had a baby a week ago. She had been ready to burst for weeks and while the men all hoped for a boy, I always told her I wanted a girl. I took her spot at the well pulling water and helped her to carry heavy things because I told her it wasn’t good to work that hard if you are that pregnant. Sure enough, when the baby was born it was a healthy baby girl.

I greeted all of elders respectfully, shaking each hand and then touching my own heart in traditional Muslim fashion. After I greeted the elders, I went in to congratulate Korde and look at the new baby.

“She looks like you,” they joked. Sure enough, the baby’s skin was a pale white.

“Don’t worry, she will get darker,” said one of the grandmothers, laughing at my shocked expression. “All of our babies are born toubaco babies.”

After chatting with the women, I greeted and congratulated the new father, Sallou Seele, on his new daughter.

“Yo Allah okku mo cellal,” I told him, reciting the blessing most appropriate for any kind of Pulaar ceremony. You can’t go wrong by asking God to grant a person health.

“Amen,” he replied, clasping his hands together.

Suddenly, the chief was at my side. Mariama, I need to speak with you privately he said to me quietly. Anxiety filled my heart. Oh no, I thought frantically. Have I done something wrong? I scanned through the formal greetings I had given to the elders. Had I misspoke? Other ideas raced through my head as we slowly made our way out under the big mango tree at the main meeting spot. Was I embarrassing myself in some way? Was my dress see-through? I would be mortified if my respectable chief father was about to tell me something of that nature. We sat down and I wrung my hands nervously.

“Mariama, I need to ask you something very important. Today we will be giving Sallou’s daughter a name. He would like to ask your permission to make his daughter your tocara.”

My mouth fell open. I was good friends with the newborn’s parents, but this was one of the highest honors I could think of. I felt tears coming to my eyes as I told him that my heart was the happiest it had ever been and I would be honored to be her tocara.

“Furthermore,” he continued, “We know your name here is Mariama, but that is not your real name. They also want to give her your American name tiki tiki.”

He chuckled and asked, “Will you help me pronounce your American name because I have to say it at the ceremony.”

“I’m sorry it is not very easy for the Pulaar tongue,” I apologized. We spent the next couple of minutes practicing saying “Whitney”. On the unpracticed Pulaar tongue it sounds more like “Wun-ty”. Ah well, it’s the thought that counts.

And so, with my heart soaring and a big grin on my face we went back to the dennabo and I listened as the chief called out, “Mariama Wun-ty” over the heads of the people and everyone turned to smile at me. I shook the father’s hand and thanked him profusely for this honor.

As is tradition, I went back to where my tocara lay and did a small dance near her to show my appreciation and happiness. Then I picked up Mariama Whitney Seele and looked into the face of my first real tocara. That’s when I felt it. A gently warm sensation spread across my thighs. Turns out, Mariama Whitney was just as excited at her new name and had decided to show her approval by peeing all over her proud tocara.

It’s funny how things just don’t faze me anymore. I held her aloft and looked at the dark spot on my beautiful blue outfit. At the sight of the pee, the old women in the hut let out howls of laughter.

While Adama, one of the older women, threw a handful of water on my lap and brushed it across the fabric, she laughed and said, “You know, Mari, it’s good lucky for life if a baby pees on you at a dennabo. Maybe it’s double luck for you since she is your new tocara.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said sarcastically, “I feel extremely lucky right now.”

As the goat’s neck was being split outside in the compound, I heard a commotion and went to see what was happening. The chief looked grim and had started walking briskly back to our own compound. I was confused since the dennabo was not over. People were suddenly muttering and looking in the direction where the chief had just gone. I couldn’t quite catch what everyone was saying.

Finally, as the older women trickled out of the hut and also started towards my compound, I asked someone what was going on.

“Binta’s baby,” said a woman in a hushed voice. Binta was the chief’s daughter in law and the baby in question was the newest baby in my compound, only a month old, and grandson to the chief.

O mayi,” she whispered, making a twisting motion near her nose. This hand signal makes my heart somersault in my chest. I dread to see it. It is the sign of death. Binta’s baby had died.

I apologized to Korde and Sallou, and gave one last look at my new tocara before rushing back to my own compound. The men were already gathered outside the chief’s house, their faces as hard as chiseled granite. From inside the stone depths of the batiment I could hear the haunted wailing of Pulaar women in mourning. I took a deep breath and gathered my courage. As a woman, I am allowed to sit with the other women when they mourn their dead babies and so I walk past the gathering of men and down the corridor where I dropped to my knees in front of my sobbing sister.

“Binta,” I whisper, “I am so sorry.”

She looks at me with desperate eyes and clasps my hand like I can somehow help her baby boy come back to life. She doesn’t say anything. It is too much for me and I start to cry. I join the other women in their sorrow as we sit in the bare room, the only amenities a bed and a mat on the floor.

I lean my head against the wall. Life is so fragile. I cannot deal with the range of emotions that have hit me in the last hour. I feel dizzy and out of body, as if I’m watching everything from above and it is not really my life or the life of these people who I have grown so much to love. These mothers have so many children, and some of them see half of them die in infancy. I think back to my own infancy. I would be among this infant mortality rate if I hadn’t been born into my incredibly lucky position as the minority of people born into the First World and even furthermore, under a medical system capable enough to save me. When I was eighteen months old I couldn’t breathe because of asthma. In America I lived. In Senegal, I would be among the ranks of the dead, not making it into my second year of life. It’s a lot to take in.

 

I break into fresh tears as I witness Fatu, the chief’s wife and the baby’s grandmother, walk into the room howling in the eerie beautiful song of the mourning voice of a Pulaar woman who knows a baby’s death far too well. I hold my head in my hands as I see one of the oldest women in village, with her milky left eye and dragging step come into the room, marking the reality that the baby is dead. I am not sure what her actual title is, but she is always there to bless the mother and dead baby. I am reminded uncomfortably of the grim reaper, as Binta goes hysterical at the old woman’s presence in the room.

 

Suddenly this life is too much for me and I leap up. I just want my American life, where I don’t personally know a single mother with a dead baby and the fragile state of life rarely gets shoved so brutally into full and naked view. I apologize to the chief and tell him I have to go, but I will be back tomorrow. I jump on bike and pedal off like a bat out of hell. I feel the burn in my thighs as I rocket along the rocky bush path at a dangerous speed, but I don’t care.

 

A baby born, a baby died. And life goes on…

 

Life here is beautiful. It’s real. But sometimes it absolutely blows my mind. I guess this is all I have to say for now, since I am working through a lot of my own thoughts even as I write.

 

Yo Allah okku mon cellal e weltogol (May God grant you all health and happiness)

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8 thoughts on “A Closer Look at Life

  1. Mama Jenkins

    Whitney, I am weeping at my desk. THis is by far one of my favorite blogs. Your descriptions are beautiful and so vivid – I am at the naming ceremony -smiling as you pick up the baby. THen start crying as I hear the wailing of the broken hearts of the village women and the mother of the child. And finally I remember the mad dashes to the emergency room when you couldn’t breathe and then spending 4 days in intensive care – yes my daughter you would be dead if we didn’t live in the US – thankfully we are all blessed to still have you as part of our lives.

  2. Mary Ridder

    Experience is a wicked good teacher. And I love how you write that you don’t know if a particular practice is African or Puular or Senegal… seems like the more experienced we get the more we learn how little we know. Your writing continues to enthrall me. Thanks for putting me in northwest Africa.

  3. jantango

    Whitney,

    This post had me in tears. You unfolded every little detail so beautifully. I trust that you are photographing your family and community to add them when you publish your book about your service in Senegal. We are trying to imagine how life is in the tiny village. You are giving us a glimpse of daily struggles with joy in your heart. All I know for sure is you have touched their lives in a deep way. They will never forget you.

  4. Hussein Diop

    Oh my dear! First of all I am sorry for that loss unfortunately in the rural area in Senegal it is not uncommon. May the Lord be mercy of his soul. Death is not always something easy.
    In the other hand congratultion for having a “Tourondo” thats how we call it in Wolof which is what I speak. its a great honor and I am sure you will be the best godmother ever. Keep your head up dear. Skype you soon I hope ‘

    Hussein

  5. Wunty,

    I cried when you described the joy of having a new tocara, I cried when you described the death of the child. Stop making me cry at work. Having read almost every blog post, I feel like I know at least a little bit your village. I don’t know which to give my condolences or my congratulations… perhaps both.
    As always, your in my thoughts. And I’m more proud of you every day.
    Brian

  6. Whitney –

    I can tell by now that everyone else who has read this post had the same reaction as me. I cried with happiness and cried with sadness as your words painted the most beautiful and heart wrenching of experiences! I read this aloud to Jordan and Stuart and couldn’t get through it without crying again.

    I also had to share it on my Facebook page – I am also looking forward to the book we know you should write about your experiences in Senegal.

    love you lots!

    Aunt Tracy

  7. Lovely Mariama,

    It was so good to meet you last month! Thank you for writing these beautiful words that allow me to revisit your and Kumba’s world now that I’m back in mine.

    Jam tun, jam tun, jam tun, etc.

    -Emily

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