One of my favorite reoccurring moments here in Senegal is the feeling of going back home again. Home for me will always be Callaway, Nebraska, but that previous connection to a true home also makes me intensely familiar to the wakening sensation beneath the skin, that deepening of breath, the smile that appears as subconsciously as a heart beating faster that can only mean you are “home”.
I suppose most of us, as we grow up and discover new people and experiences that bind us to places, consider more than one place home. That is what Sinchurio Samba Foula is to me. I am quite sure that for the rest of my life I will remember that first bend in the red dirt road, just past the indefinitely parked charcoal trucks and the well with the women scrubbing laundry who always call out my name, when the heat from the blacktop road finally breaks, and the horizon is nothing but an endless green stretch before me.
Somewhere in that distance, as I pedal just a little faster and my chest lifts a little higher, Sinchurio is nestled there like always, not waiting for me, but there all the same mostly as I left it.
My most recent return home was particularly breathtaking, as somewhere between the time I left for the sandier drier northern regions of Thies and the week and a half later when I returned, rainy season had finally come to southern Senegal. As I rounded the homeward bound bend, I blinked hard, trying to figure out if it was eyes, grown unaccustomed to the greenery of the south, or if the trees really were a more vibrant shade of emerald. As I crossed the bridge under branches heavy with leafy foliage, and vines starting to twist up trunks of trees, I glanced down at the new pool of water hiccupping with frog song.
Yes, I thought, I can feel it.
Something had changed. It was if the earth was breathing again, deeply, contentedly, and everything and everyone breathed with it. The small shoots of grass bent back and forth, and the earth freshly tilled was rich and dark and it was breathing too! I biked past men in their fields, brows furrowed and focused on their old steel plows, but who always looked up and waved to me with an energy that had been absent before I left. And I found myself waving enthusiastically back, something I hadn’t done in a while when the heat had clung on to me like an unshakable fever and the chance of hearing an isolated “toubaco” on my bike ride to work kept my headphones snug in my ears and my eyes focused only on the path so as not to greaten my discomfort with anger.
But the world was breathing again and I was breathing with it. I felt rejuvenated as only rain can make you feel.
Your trees will live. These people will live. You will live, the earth was saying to me and I believed it. Now as the rains are truly here and the farmers are all in their fields making sure that they hit the fifteen day window they need to get all the seeds in the ground, I am also at work, making sure that my farmers spare enough time to dig the out planting holes that will be needed for their trees in these next two months.
This means that my days are filled with digging and more digging. My hands were long ago hardened to the rough wood of the pickaxe handle, but every day when I drag myself home, my arms are aching. If you ever read that book Holes when you were younger, that is what I feel like right now. But it is satisfying to know that we are preparing entire cashew and mango orchards for when the seedlings are finally strong enough to plant. It also gives me a personal sense of hope. Perhaps a false one, but hope nonetheless. If I make the measurements, dig the holes, and add the amendments, the farmers and I can almost see the orchard that will be there! They can’t let the tree nurseries fail now. It would be like preparing a fish tank with all the fun little plants and bubble machines and then never buying the fish. No way, Jose! Uh-uh, not happening this year!
And when I’m not digging holes, sweating like a pig, burning my poor English/German origin skin under an unforgiving African sun and loving every minute of it, I am spending as much time as I can with my family and friends in Sinchurio and the surrounding areas. This has given me some time to find out some fascinating tidbits, like this one:
The big tabba tree in Manda Village where I work with Viay is supposedly enchanted and everyone in the entire region knows it!
Early on I noticed that people seemed to give this particular tree respect. The people in Manda have built a big log platform so that they can sit under the shade of the tabba tree and hold meetings. It is always where I eat lunch when I go to Manda to work. The other day, a few men had come to talk to Viay and one of them reached up and looked as if he was about to tug one of the leaves off the tabba tree.
“Don’t!” Viay said sharply. The man ripped his hand away from the tree as if he had been burnt, looked around sheepishly, and apologized to everyone.
“I forgot,” he said.
Whoa, what? First of all I have never seen Viay become agitated or sharp with anyone. Secondly, it’s just a leaf, what was the man apologizing for?
I asked Viay what that little display was all about.
“If you tear even a leaf off this tree, violence will fall upon all the people and misfortune on the one who damaged the tree,” Viay told me solemnly.
“Thanks for telling me before!” I joked.
“Now you know,” he said, not even the trace of a smile on his face.I was intrigued, especially since I have always felt a connection to the tabba tree. I think I have even written about the tabba trees before in my blog. They grow to be huge, with a canopy that far outreaches even their massive trunks. In my tabba tree, I can climb it by jumping up onto one of the gargantuan branches that is low enough to almost sweep the ground. From there, I can walk with very little fear of falling because the girth of the branch is so large. And in the top of the tabba tree, it’s like another world. All of its branches twist and turn and fan out with heart shaped leaves as big as my spread hand. If I sit long enough in the crook that makes the perfect recliner, I can see everything from big blue and yellow lizards to high strung ground squirrels who chatter at me, annoyed at my break into their home, to fruit bats that fly in at dusk to sleep.
And there is definitely something about the tabba tree. Even before I learned that Pulaars also think they are magical, I sensed something about these certain trees. Early on in my service when I needed to get away from the language I couldn’t wrap my mind around, much less speak, I would go to the tabba tree to sit. Without fail, I felt a sense of peace and calm spread through me. I still go to the tabba tree for inspiration or comfort.
I wanted to know more about the magical tabba tree in Manda because it seemed that while people respect tabba trees in general, this one was extra special. Yesterday, I asked the chief about tabba trees.
“Jarga, what happens if you tear a leaf off that tabba tree,” I asked, pointing to my tabba tree, the one just beyond our compound.
“Hay fuss,” he shrugged. Nothing.
“Oh!” said Mari, my host mother, from where she was snapping peanut shells, “Someone must have told her about the tabba tree in Manda.”
Aha! So everyone does know about the tabba tree in Manda.
The chief went on to explain to me that while all tabba trees have the ability to be the homes of genies and thus have magical powers, not all of them are inhabited. It is common knowledge that if you cut down a tabba tree, you run the risk of the genie inside becoming enraged and possessing your mind until you are crazed and have fits. In fact, this is their explanation for people with epilepsy.
The tabba tree in Manda though, is particularly revered, he told me, and holds deep magic. Back in the days of the early elders that tabba tree was the throne to the king! Now even to this day, no one is allowed to lean against that tree because he is not the king. That is why they built the banta (log platform) so that they can sit beneath it, but not against it!
How cool is that?
So for now, for the next couple of weeks I will be in my village digging holes, smelling the citrus flowers that are blooming on the tree in my backyard, waiting for the storms that come to rock through our little village and leave the ground with a fresh layer of vegetation, learning about the myths and traditions in Pulaar that I will only be able to find out at this language level and probably never again, and loving my family as much as I can. And posting this blog of course!
I hope that everyone is having a beautiful, picnic and festival filled summer, complete with fresh garden salad, farmers markets, and lemonade, the way that I remember summers to be in America! While there is nothing like a summer rainy season in Senegal, West Africa, there is certainly something to be said for a true American summer as well.