An African Villager's Work Is Never Done

Article excerpt

Before turning off the paved road and onto the horse-cart paths that connect Thies to Senegal's hinterland, the man whose job it was to abandon me for a week in a remote village stopped at an outdoor market.

"You should get some things for your host family," he said, and promptly began to fill two plastic bags with as many vegetables, fish, and baguettes as my $20 could buy.

Bestowing gifts on my captors hadn't been high on my list of priorities. After two months in cosmopolitan Dakar, the "rural experience" part of my study-abroad program felt more like a forced exile than an honor requiring reciprocation.

Koulouk resembled every other village we had passed since leaving Thies: a few tin-roofed concrete-block compounds enclosed by millet- stalk fences replete with unruly chickens and sheep. All that separated sand from sky were bulbous baobab trees, scattered about the barren landscape like quixotic windmills, refusing to form a forest and reluctant to provide much-needed shade.

My stomach sank at the thought of all that I did not share with my hosts: a language, a culture, and common ground. If ignorance was my crime, this punishment seemed excessive.

Then I met "Mami" (Grandma). Sizing me up quickly, she intuited my linguistic limitations and dispensed with the lengthy traditional greeting. Snatching the bags of produce I extended proudly, she handed them off to one of two dozen kids come to stare and snicker. Suddenly Mami was pulling me through the growing crowd toward the closest compound.

Before being deposited in what was to be my room (Mami's room, I later learned), I had time to be surprised by her strength - she was 70 or so; I also registered her lack of teeth, since she too was snickering. Apparently the joke was on me, only I didn't get it.

"Rest," Mami said, forcing me to sit on the straw-stuffed mattress to be certain I understood. Then she withdrew, along with the sounds of a village that had come to greet me, the villagers returning to whatever they had been doing before the funny foreigner arrived.

Later, my dinner was delivered: a succulent rice-based fish and vegetable dish. My gift of produce had been artistically transformed. Eating alone, I wondered with a mixture of hope and dread if solitary confinement would be my fate here.

The rhythmic beat of mortar and pestle woke me at dawn. When, hours later, still no one had come calling, I concluded that my solitude would indeed remain undisturbed unless I showed my face - and some interest in my surroundings.

Mami sat on a mat at the base of the nearest tree, apparently waiting for me.

"There's Mariama," she chuckled and asked, not without irony, "Sleep well?" The better part of a village day - the part when the Sahelian heat is not unbearable - had elapsed as I'd struggled to pull myself together.

From that moment on, Mami was my unrelenting guide to village life. At an old woman's pace - or a foreigner's - we walked from one compound to the next, from field to field and town to town, greeting everyone we met. Invariably, the ingredients of my evening meal were supplied by some new acquaintance.

"These eggs were given to you by Sokhna," Mami would say, cradling them in ebony palms before returning them to me as an omelet. …

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