An adventure east
Guest blog post from one of our interns Samantha (Sami) Nandyal
Wolof of the week: Dafa rafette- It's beautiful
I have heard many stories of the harrowing journey to the east of Senegal: hot bodies crammed into a little car, jolting and lurching down pothole covered roads, baking in the harsh heat, enduring for 12+ hours of travel with only the desire to reach the destination keeping them going. To my delight, I instead found myself in a comfortable, air conditioned SUV with Abdoulaye and a kind, Dutch anthropologist named Esther. Our journey was not at all harrowing, and consisted of long naps (at least for me), sufficient food breaks, a hotel stay to divy up the drive, and hours of 90's music provided by Esther's surviving collection of CD's. As the trip stretched on, we watched as the cement-block buildings turned into round thatched huts, the sand turned to soil with a rich red hue, grass appeared (seriously considered jumping out of the car to run around in it, you never know how awesome grass is until you don't see it anymore), giant baobob's loomed in every direction, hills rose up out of the plains, the sky seemed to stretch bigger and bigger, and soon there was green everywhere we looked. Green, green, green.
The last leg of the journey to Kedougou is a road through a national park, populated by hyenas, lions, leopards, wild boars, and baboons. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we only saw the latter two species while passing through. We arrived in Kedougou in the early evening and were greeted by our friend Peter, another anthropologist who grew up in southern Senegal and now lives in Canada, coming back a couple times a year to keep many cool projects going and to enjoy all the beauty that this region has to offer. Peter showed us around his compound, complete with comfortable huts made in a fashion unique to the Bassari people who live there. At the back of the property, Peter has his own little forest flourishing that he says is often used by his friends in the area for traditional ceremonies. Throughout my time staying there, I spent many hours under those trees, kept cool by the ceiling of leaves and branches, and content by the green glow of the sanctuary.
After settling in and meeting the Bassari family that lives with Peter, we headed into downtown Kedougou to grab some basics from the market. Before making the trek, I had been warned by Peter that we'd be staying in "bachelor conditions" and "in the bush". His warnings had me prepared for camp-style living (Prepared is a generous term. I brought sneakers and toilet paper.), but I was happy to find all the necessities and more waiting for us: beds, mosquito nets, a western style toilet but without the unnecessary flushing capability, a well to draw bath water from, and a tangana down the road from which to buy meals. We spent each night gathered around a bowl of delicious grub from the tangana, the fish and rice illuminated by either the stars or our equally magnificent cellphone flashlights. (Tanganas can be found all over Senegal. Look for a table on the side of the road, utilized as a kitchen by a kind lady willing to sell you a hot meal for less than the equivalent of 1 U.S. dollar).
I first met Peter in the communal spirit of Aywa International, the non-profit we both work with. As we talked during those first days and over the length of my visit, his unique perspective on life was revealed. He grew up in the colorful atmosphere of the Casamance, southern Senegal, and under the watchful eyes of missionary parents. His vast knowledge of Bassari, Bedik, and other ethnic groups of Senegal was rivaled only by his respect and awe for them. Peter could tell story after story of adventures he had embarked on: camping in lion-filled terrain, participating in secret traditional ceremonies, inner-tubing down a river laden with hippos, walking away from a car crash unscathed only because he was jammed between two large market ladies. My fascination with his stories was heightened by the surreal surroundings in which they were told: drinking cold beverages with our group overlooking Guinea and the river that his story had taken place on, under a night sky filled with more stars than I have cumulatively seen ever, on a beach accompanied by the sounds of waves announcing their presence. The casual manner in which he told these stories also piqued my interest, as did the fact that I sometimes had to coax them out of him, a refreshing activity for me as many people with far less interesting things to say often don't need any coaxing...or responses back...I digress. I learned so much from Peter, and I am forever grateful for his hospitality, mentorship, and patience with this inexperienced American girl who cries at sunsets.
Each night, Abdoulaye and I would join in on the kind of music sessions that fill my heart. Laye on the guitar, Barthe rapping, Alexi and I singing, and Kali occasionally chiming in on a wooden flute, all of us surrounded by their encouraging family members and friends. An afternoon was spent teaching one of the boys, Michel, English in return for a lesson in making attaaya. (Heat the coals, boil the water, tea leaves, and sugar, pour tea gracefully back and forth between two (shot) glasses until foam fills half of each glass, don't burn yourself, hand each person present a glass in order of age, repeat all steps for a few hours or until the tea is too weak). During another afternoon, we walked through a village Peter used to live in, meeting vibrant characters, gazing up at ancient sacred trees, and taking note of specific agricultural practices. A different evening, I got to meet a young chimp that thought he was a fourth grader and a cat that thought she was a dog, but you can message me if you'd like to hear that story.
Perhaps my favorite part of the trip was watching Abdoulaye take in the indescribable beauty of his own country. Clocking in in his thirties, he had never been to this corner of Senegal before the trip. The colors, wildlife, terrain, and even the culture was new to him, making him widen his eyes and occasionally shake his head in disbelief. He works hard at the shop everyday, providing for his wife and four kids, and hesitantly agreed to embark on this journey with us, knowing it was an opportunity for all of us to experience something new. An amazing travel companion and an even better human being. With his calm presence, Esther's intelligent, quiet, and graciously kind demeanor, Peter's experienced guiding hand, and my eager (and hopefully endearing?) uselessness, we made quite a ragtag group of travelers on our journey back to Dakar, stopping for a night in Saly, a touristy beach town.