Thursday, June 17, 2010


"One learns, I would hope, to discover what is right, what needs to be righted — through work, through action."

-Daniel Berrigan

Amen, brother.

Coming to terms with a certain amount of uncertainty

One of the repeated lessons of my time in Senegal has been that the future is less certain here than it is in the United States. So many things fluctuate. The prices of basic foods rise and fall with the season, and with how lucky or unlucky we were during the last planting and harvesting cycle. We do our best to build strong foundations and walls, and when the termites come to rip the heart out of our mud-brick buildings, we rebuild them before the heavy rains begin and wait, and watch, and hope. My family members go to the local wise men and come back with blessed scraps of string to tie under our knees, to ward off snakes and protect us from their bite. We set up mosquito nets against the threat of malaria, and every pregnant woman in the country is offered a free and anonymous HIV/AIDS test during one of her first pre-natal visits. This sense of a hesitant belief in a future that may not be full of blessings reveals itself even in the way we speak. The future tense in Wolof is habitually indicated by a murmured "Inshallah," meaning, God willing. God willing, I will see you at the meeting this afternoon. God willing, I will call you from Dakar when I get there. God willing, the rains will come, the food will be plentiful, we will gather together at the end of the fasting month to pray, to slaughter a goat, to feast and be thankful and ask each other pardon for our sins. It's not the same as Western style superstition. We're not knocking on wood for fear of jinxing the future. We simply are not sure that there is one, or that we would welcome what it holds.

For a long time, this mentality was a source of anxiety to me. How could I bear to hear my family admit at the beginning of every journey I made into Kaolack that my return depended on the will of an utterly impersonal, absent God? How could every work plan I made with people in the village hinge not on my desire to see the work through to its end, or on the drive and energy and wisdom that the Senegalese men and women I work with bring to each new project, but on something utterly beyond my control? No Muslim, I. No atheist, quite, either, but I lack the deep-seated devotion or whatever other faculty it may require to accept so much uncertainty.

During my first couple months at site, as everyone around me calmly made their preparations for the rainy season, I dithered around in a whirl of anxiety over what was to come. My family, who had seen the rains come and go, sometimes leaving plenty and sometimes leaving much, much less than what would be needed to feed them for the eight long months of the dry season, went to the fields. They gathered the dried millet stalks and clumps of roots into piles and set them aflame, tending the fires, sending the vaguely intimidating scent of readiness my way as I watched from the edge of the field. They spread manure and seeded the millet, corn, bissap, beans, and peanuts. And then they came home and waited. I raised money from my friends and family back home for a mosquito net distribution, taught women how to make a lotion that would ward away mosquitoes, and waited with mounting terror for the first rain.

It came, of course. God willed it? Only two people in my village got malaria over the course of the rainy season. The fields produced enough food for us, and when the end of Ramadan came we slaughtered a goat and feasted. God willed it.

This year, I am waiting again. We’re on the brink of it now. Other volunteers to the south and east have reported the type of storm I know to be coming our way, where the force of the wind wakes you at three in the morning and the torrent of water pours from the sky, whipped in all directions through the thin thatching of my roof, into my bed, and onto the fields, where the seeds already wait for it. We haven’t had a storm like that yet, but we have had a few late afternoons where the wind picks up out of the southeast, storms clouds roll in, and we watch the lightning from 100 miles away as a few spare drops fall on our upturned faces.

On one such early evening, I sat in the doorway of my hut watching as the women of my compound brought in the plastic chairs and mats we sit on outside, just to be safe. My host mom put out the cooking fire and everyone retired to their huts to look out at the light drizzle. Everyone except for Fama, the four year old girl-demon of our family. Not yet bathed for the evening and free from the disapproving gaze of her mother, who had gone to another village for a wedding, she ran skipping and screaming through the heavy drops, sliding and diving in the sand that would some day soon be welcoming mud, counting in broken Wolof the number of water splotches she found on her arms, on my face. As the rain picked up a little, still not the real thing, her joy increased. She sang and danced, and when she began to hear the low murmur of the thunder that crashed heart-stoppingly over other villages and other families far away, she clapped her hands over her ears and whooped.

I watched her from my doorway until she was too tired to continue. She came to me and sat in my lap, eagerly telling me that the thunder would kill you if you listened too closely, and that her mother would be bringing back a wonderful gift for us from the wedding, and where did my pet cat, Pierre, go when it rained? We sat there chatting until the drops, never strong enough to force even one of their number through my thatched roof, stopped entirely. Life resumed, the chairs and mats and wooden benches came back out, and my mom rekindled the cooking fire.

I have never in my life felt the type of peace in my heart I experienced that evening, as the sun set behind me and Fama and the rainclouds danced before me. I suppose it’s still up to God’s will to bring the rain, to keep my partially strengthened hut from collapsing when the heaviest of the winds come, to look to our fields, and to give Fama the life and the joy I think she’s ripe for and deserves. That’s not something I understand. But it’s something for which I am willing to wait, and watch, and hope. In the meantime, we’ll prepare. I am expanding universal net coverage in my area, through the generous help of my friends and family back home who donated to my Against Malaria campaign, and my family here is out in the fields. Fama dances, and she fears and loves the thunder and the rain, and I fear and love our futures.

Love and guts,