So today I took my little brother, Caba, you know my favorite one, shopping in Velingara, a town 30 km away from our village. I couldn’t help but imagine us doing this same shopping trip in America. Here we were, an eleven year old riding on the back of a bike driven by an unusually tall white woman. So before I get into my story, you need a little bit of backround information.
In a couple of weeks almost of all of Senegal will celebrate Tobaski, the Muslim equivalent to the Christian Christmas. The kids look forward to new clothes and if you remember last year, the goal of the nation is for every household to have a sheep slaughtered on Tobaski. This means more food than you could ever imagine. Well a couple of days ago, I thought that Caba might be hinting at the fact that he would really like a new outfit for Tobaski.
“Caba, do you want me to buy you a complet for Tobaski?” I asked laughing at his attempt to subtly ask me.
“Yes, Mari. That is what I want.”
“Well, you are not getting so easily as just asking! I will get you a complet for Tobaski, but you have to sweep out my room every day and feed my chickens. Do we have a deal?”
A huge grin split his round face. Luckily for me, he didn’t know that I would have bought him a complet just for that smile. What can I say, I’m crazy about that boy. “Oh, I will sweep your room laabi puy, every single day!”
In the end, I agreed that I would take him to Velingara and we would look for the perfect Tobaski outfit together. We shook on it and today is the day.
This morning when we were preparing to leave the village, I walked out the door of my hut and asked if he was ready to go. He looked so crest fallen, it gave me a pang in the heart just to see his face even before I knew what was wrong.
“I can’t go Mari,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “Baba is taking the bike to the market, so I don’t have a bike to get out of village.”
He started to back away into his own hut.
“Wait,” I called. I knew I was going to pay. This was going to hurt a bit. “I can take you. Come on, put my backpack on and get on the back of my bike.”
“Really?! Can you take me all the way to Sinthian Koundara?” he asked, already running to steady my bike.
“Yeah. It will be easy,” I lied. The truth is, Sinthian Koundara is 9 km on a bush path to the road. I hoped I would make it, but I couldn’t be sure. Before I knew it, me and my little Senegalese suitcase had made it safely to Sinthian Koundara. I bought us both bean sandwiches and a glass of café Touba. Caba munched on his sandwich like we were at a five star restaurant in New York and chuckled happily in embarrassment whenever I called attention to him or told someone at the breakfast stand that he was my little brother here in Senegal. He also grew mysteriously shy when anyone tried to talk to him. It’s amazing how kids who never shut up when you are alone with them, suddenly become these polite shy little angels in front of strangers. I laughed in spite of myself.
Finally the Alhum pulled up and we jumped aboard. Caba slid into the seat beside me, but he could barely keep from craning around looking at the driver and everything outside the car as we made our lugubrious way towards Velingara, crunching and bumping over the potholes. When he finally did sit down, he squeezed closed to me and I noticed that his legs weren’t long enough to reach the ground from our seat, so they swung like we were aboard some kind of ride at an amusement park. Keep in mind everyone, that although Velingara is only 30 km away, the kid never leaves the village and this was like going to Las Vegas for him. He hadn’t been to Velingara since 4 years before as far as he can remember.
When we got off in Velingara, he hopped back aboard the bike and I kicked off to hoots of laughter and pointed fingers at the spectacle we were making. In Senegal, for formal events almost everyone wears traditional clothing. The men and boys wear long flowing shirts with big billowing pants, all made from a stiff material called wax and all in the same color. Women do the same, except they have elaborate stitching embroidered onto skirts and tightly fitting bodices topped with a coiled length of fabric in matching fabric that only Senegalese women can tuck and fluff properly into the fabric confection atop their braids. I can never get it right. I digress. In my mind, I have it all planned. We will go to the tailor and get Caba measured and then he will pick out the fabric of his choice. He will be just the cutest thing in his little bou bou.
First we go to the tailor and Caba solemnly puts out his arms for measurements. Then we look around at fabrics. We pull out beautiful shades of blues, maroons, and greens. Because I know the kid by this point, I also know his heart just isn’t into it.
“What’s your deal,” I ask him, bending down so that I don’t embarrass him in front of the shop women. “You don’t really like any of these, do you?”
“Mari, I kind of just what pants and a shirt,” he said quietly, not meeting my eye.
“Wait, wait, wait. You just want jeans and a shirt for a tobaski outfit?” I asked. “You don’t want a traditional bou bou?”
He nodded once as I thought, great, his Mom is going to kill me.
“Are you sure? This is the one chance you get for a tobaski outfit.”
He nodded again.
“Fine show me, but if I don’t like it we are not buying it.” I grabbed his shoulder and steered him out of the fabric store. Listen to me, I thought to myself. It was suddenly like I was the cool aunt or something taking my nephew out for Christmas concert shopping.
“Okay, I’ll show you what I want,” he said, a smile once again lighting his face.
He sped off down the street and turned into one of the darkened alleys of the inside marketplace. We bumped by women with fish baskets on their heads and sketchy men beckoning us to come look at their wares in small, ratty corners separated only by stones and dirt. Within the very inner sanctum of the market, Caba turned into a shadowy shop lit only by one neon blue light. We greeted the shop owner, a surly looking man with a pock marked face and large nose. I watched with horror as Caba pulled down a pear of green camo pants with gold chains hanging from the pockets. He held them up for my inspection.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “Your Mom is going to kill me. Those are hideous.”
I felt bad when he put them back hurriedly and searched for a new pair. “What about these, Mari?” he smiled up hopefully and held up a new pair that were less offensive even with their black and white camo-like patterns. Less chains.
My Caba was back though, and his smile was too much for me. This is what he wanted. “Those are better. But they look too small.”
Together we sorted through the piles of jeans and shirts and finally found the perfect tobaski outfit that fit. We settled on the black and white tiger pants as I like to call them and a black vinyl shirt that looks as if it was purchased on WildHogsMotorcycleClub.com. But he likes it. And I’m not his Mom. That’s the best part. J
Pictures to follow…