What’s in a name?
Well, I’m back in the U.S., which means back to the old grad-student-grind. (There is, however, the new excitement of teaching French 1 for the first time here in Beautiful Berkeley, where I have hardly seen a cloud since my return.) I’ve had a few things to finish up for my Kiva fellowship in Senegal, though, since my last week in the field was spent… in the field. We ran around trying to pack as many interviews as we could into the last few days; but, as if to mock our efforts at productivity, fate struck me with a quick bout of travel-related discomfort that prevented us from visiting our ecovillage clients at Palmerin, where coincidentally there was supposed to be a giant beachside party that week.
Looking back at all the pictures, notes, and data that I now have to make sense of, names and places that three months ago sounded hopelessly foreign resonate with meaning — and return to my memory tinged with nostalgia. “Assane Gueye” is no longer just “ecovillage president, member ISTD group, preschool, Thiaroye-sur-mer” but a hilarious friend and colleague who keeps a smile on his face and the jokes rolling out — the art of teasing, called tooñ or taquinerie, is highly developed among all Senegalese friends and greatly contributes to the fun had by foreigners such as myself — in spite of the fact that his group’s Kiva-financed preschool for underprivileged children is on the brink of closing. Their landlord of three years kicked them out so he could do construction on the building; but the school’s problems had been wearing it down well before that, since many parents cannot afford the $6 per month that the school asks in order to function. The fate of the project is precarious, yet Assane’s cheer and optimism remain steadfast. As he spent his holiday walking through the rain and mud with us (while gently mocking me the whole way) to visit Kiva’s other projects in Thiaroye, a suburb of Dakar that is perpetually jammed with traffic since it straddles the one highway that leads out of town, each client we saw thanked him for his tireless work managing their loans — a volunteer job. But, unlike other persons of community importance who I’ve met throughout Senegal, you would never know from meeting him that he is so respected. Young, unassuming, and witty, his presence reminds you that when your efforts don’t work out, pressing on is not just doable, but doable while enjoying life too.
Or, I could cite the long lists of names which the president of the Ndiaye Ndiaye ecovillage, located several hours southeast of Dakar in the town of Fatick, asked us to diligently record each time we met a group there out of concern for the precise accuracy of our records. Names like Wanguène Sène, Dieynaba Niane, the two Yadikone Ndiaye’s, and Ndiass Diouf (whose group has the unusual activity of making furnaces fueled by cow manure as an alternative to expensive butane stoves) fill this part of my notepad. But such tongue-twisters can be anything but meaningless when I look at them now. One of these groups, which mercifully for me happens to have the simple French name of “Trois Cocotiers,” gave me a heck of a welcome! The women hadn’t all arrived when we first went to their leader’s house to meet them; we waited for a while, but since it appeared they would be taking their time, we left to meet other groups. When we returned an hour or two later, everyone was assembled. But to make up for their tardiness, the women jumped out of their seats one by one and proceeded to dance for a good 15 minutes.
They even sent someone to go fetch the drums to add some atmosphere.
This spectacle more than made up for the beach party I missed in Palmerin.
It is astounding to me to think of how rich my memories of Senegal, a country I knew only through books and the Bissap Baobab restaurant in San Francisco before, have become: foggy ideas and empty names have taken on sharp contours and been colored in with both joy and worry. What will happen to ISTD’s school, or more importantly, its kids?
My only regret is that summers are so short. I can’t wait to go back.