Life of Aissatou and Dowda Vol 2: The Introduction of Adama and Moussa
Over Labor Day Weekend, while our friends in the US were BBQing and finishing up back-to-school shopping, Ronit and I took the kids on a long drive to visit her Peace Corps village. The village of Fougoulou is about an hour south of the regional capital city of Tambacounda. And Tamba itself is a solid 6.5 hour drive from Dakar. So it’s far.
Ronit, known as Aissatou in the village, had the chance to stop by Fougoulou for a couple of hours on a business trip a few months back, and saw her family there. However, I hadn’t been there since our trip back in 2004 and of course Shai and Micah have never been. The villagers have been anticipating the day they could meet Aissatou’s children ever since she was a volunteer.
Ronit and I have been prepping Shai for what life is like in the village ever since we learned about our posting to Senegal. What have we told him? Well, that there isn’t much to do. It is hot. The water is dirty. No, he cannot bring his Leapster. And folks like to stare at us because we’re different.
The staring is actually quite fatiguing. I don’t mind so much in the village where you can play games with the kids and make them laugh, but in Tamba where the incessant stares are accompanied by the cat-calls of “Toubab,” (the Senegalese word for “Gringo” or “Barang”) I find it infuriating. We got a taste of it when we stopped in Missirah, the closest town to Fougoulou (about 30km north), to buy some supplies for the village. Ronit was in a roadside boutique negotiating for a 50 kilo sack of rice, while the boys and I stayed in the air-conditioned car, with Iron & Wine plinking in the background and about 20 dark faces pressed against our dusty car windows peering in at the marvelous entertaining white children. I sat in the front seat pretending it was all totally normal, fighting the temptation to shoo the kids off like flies.
But once we got to the village all that melts away. We are no longer strangers invading a strange land. We are now Aissatou’s family. And we are welcomed with open arms. We introduce Shai and Micah with their Senegalese names. Shai is Adama (from his middle name Adam… actually, his middle name Adam comes from his Senegalese name Adama). Micah is Moussa, a popular “M” name in Senegal. I am Dowda. The extended family showers us with praise and admiration. At least that’s what I think they were saying. My Pulaar is a little rusty. The want to know when Ronit is having a baby girl. They want to hold Moussa (Moussa, for his part, wants to be held only by Aissatou or Dowda). We plunk down on a wooden bench to sit and endure the stares from the children. I quickly settle back into the village mentality of just sitting around. In the shade, the breeze feels nice. If you step out of the shade, villagers will warn “Naange no wooli,” (the sun is hot). We make tea.
Countless family members, village elders, neighbors and old friends circulate through the compound and offer greetings. Ronit, with somewhat rusty Pulaar, is able to communicate freely. I have my greetings down pat. “A jaarama” “Tenna alla” “Jam tung” “Alhumdulilah.” It is a little vocal dance we do with every visitor.
Micah quickly found his groove in the village, immediately setting out to find some mud to play in. Quite content to move mud from one puddle to another, he just played and played. If a facial expression or gesture earned him a laugh from the harem of girls following him around, he’d quickly repeat it. Moussa was a big hit.
Shai was a little more reserved at first. He stuck close to us, whined about how long lunch was taking (granted, I was almost whining as well… who eats lunch at 2pm?), didn’t want to play too much in the sun. It took Shai until the second day to really find his element. While Ronit and I were off taking a census of the village, Shai brought out the Frisbee and taught his new friends how to throw. At one point I came back to the compound to get more water to find Shai and eight other village boys hurling plastic discs towards each other. He told me, “My cousin can throw the disc pretty good.” I knew then he whole-heartily accepted what Ronit had been telling him all along; this was her village family.
On Saturday afternoon we gave out the clothing we had collected. It was a big hit. But there is never enough to go around. We have come up with a better distribution method for future deliveries, so if you have clothes you’re getting rid of, we will gladly take them. On Sunday afternoon, we did a count of the number of huts and people living in each of the village’s 39 compounds. We have some ideas of projects we’d like to do, but also will sit down with the villagers on our next trip and figure out what projects they would like to see. The challenge is coming up with something that they will be motivated to continue as well as something which is sustainable in the long run without an influx of resources from outsiders. Not an easy task, but one we hope will have a positive, lasting outcome.
We plan to make the long trip regularly. How regular, I’m not sure. Did I mention how long the drive is? But we’d like to build our own hut, buy a pet cow for the boys, and develop and maintain whatever project we set out to do. I was nervous about how the kids would react to life in the village. It is so very different from anything they have known. Yet some things are familiar, like the food. Before moving to Senegal, we would have Senegalese Sunday, making Senegalese food for dinner and sit around a common bowl and eat with our hands. Ronit’s sister brought the kids spoons to eat with, but those were quickly discarded for the familiar (and more fun) finger scoop.
As we were getting ready to depart, we asked Shai if he had fun. Sweaty and dirty from playing Frisbee, he wore a shy grin and said, “Yea, but can we come back to the village again?” We smiled back. Of course we can, we told him.