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
"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
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
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