It seems like a Peace Corps cliché to say that death is everywhere in Senegal: the smell of it, the sound and even sight of it. If they cannot be eaten, the carcasses of donkeys, horses, cows, goats, and sheep are dragged out to the empty fields just beyond the village, to the same place where it’s considered polite to dump your trash. For days afterward, people passing on foot and horse cart hold scraps of fabric to their mouths and noses, breathing shallowly or not at all as they go by. The sound of death is also a little mundane. It’s the sound of my cat pouncing on whatever he finds scurrying around my hut at night. Besides, this is not a place like the United States, where we are far from our food. On the holidays and rare occasions when we have meat, it’s slaughtered right there in the compound.
In villages further south, the death of a member of the community member is announced by the wailing of women, which begins among the bereaved and travels from compound to compound. In my village, it’s announced over the same loudspeaker that is used to sing out the call to prayer. When we hear the system switch on at a time we know is not set aside for a pause for devotion, everyone stops what they’re doing to listen. All conversation stops. Children are shushed and shoved aside. The man making the announcement greets the village and lists the names of the deceased’s closest relatives before saying his or her name. Though he begins to repeat the message, his voice is drowned out by the beginnings of shocked or grieved commentary. Deaths here are not always surprises, but it seems like they’re always shocking.
As the car I was in pulled out of the garage in Kaolack the other day, we passed the usual street vendors and travelers common in that corner of the city. This is my least-favorite place to walk in Senegal, this short stretch at the mouth of the garage: too many people, too many cars, and not enough space for everything that’s happening. I had a window seat, which almost never happens, and though I’ve seen it all a hundred times I still sat staring out at the passing foot traffic moving quickly between a lane of cars and a row of street vendors. Perhaps I stuck out to the man on the opposite side of the road because my skin, like his, is not black. For whatever reason, I caught the eye of this Lebanese or Moroccan man as the car passed him by, headed in the opposite direction. I have three freeze-frame memories of what happened here. The first is his face as we made eye contact, expressing a little surprise, perhaps, to see a young white woman traveling in the normal Senegalese way. The second is just a moment later, when the car I was in had almost reached him and the larger car behind him began, inexorably, somehow not stopping, to crush his body beneath it as it passed, moving in the direction opposite my car. In this moment his legs are bending, but backwards and not at the knee. His hands are briefly thrown up before they come rushing back down. The third is the aftermath, the last scene, the final frame this man will ever appear in to anybody. I tried to get my car to stop, less out of a thought that the first-aid training I received at the beginning of my service could be of any possible use, more out of a feeling that the man should not be left behind, that by witnessing and being present at his death, we were responsible in some way for what immediately followed. Or rather, that I was. It was panic, desperate and simple, and the others in the car could not share it because they had seen nothing. “He’s dead, probably,” they told me, when I had said what I saw. The car drove on.
I have this feeling, every time I hear of a death in my village or a death back home in the States, that to die is to be left behind by everyone and everything else. Even grieving is a way of continuing, by sorting through the pain and horror of the death of a loved one until you come out the other side of it. Of course, it would be impossible to stand still with those we love who have died, unthinkable to halt our progress forward in time, horrific to allow ourselves to live only in the past with our ghosts. I know, I know. But I can’t shake this feeling that we do the dead an injustice by leaving them back there, driving away with people who did not see, to meet people who will not know, to confront a life that we perhaps think continues, always and always.