Sunday, January 16, 2011

Surprise trip home.

So I’m going to back in the States for a quick trip to help my mom out. She’s moving across the city. I don’t know for sure that I’m ready for a trip home, but this seems like one of those things you do for the people you love.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what is so terrifying about the prospect of being back over there. It is not the piles of guacamole and potato tacos I’m going to devour. It’s not the daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s not the constant access to hot showers and flush toilets and air conditioners and space heaters. It’s not the long flights, though I do hate flying and dread and begrudge every hour spent in the air. It isn’t the prospect of putting on socks for the first time in two years, and seeing my friends and family again.

America should be an appealing place to go, by any standard. Even though I can no longer tolerate dairy products or temperatures under 70 degrees with anything like comfort, this jaunt across an ocean and a continent should be something I look forward to.

Maybe I should take a step back. When I talk about America with my host family or other Senegalese people, lots of things surprise them or leave them thinking a little differently about the world. Yes, I explain, in response to the constant commentary on how wealthy all white people are. America does have a lot of money, it’s a very rich place. But there are affluent places and poor places in the States, just like we have here in Senegal: places like Dakar, places like the village. Places with plenty, places with nothing. People are often very curious (and sometimes rather abrasive) about the fact that at 24, I’m not married. Senegalese women of my age have three children and a fifth-grade education. Since I am invariably uninterested in the Senegalese men who approach me, and sometimes extremely rude in response to their advances, I’m something of an anomaly.

Another thing that surprises people here is my description of how people relate to each other in the States. No one makes eye contact or greets with strangers in the street? Families live hours and hours away from their “close” relations? Children leave the houses of their parents when they turn 18? The physical and emotional distances are unthinkable for Senegalese people.

Relate is one of those words that’s changed in meaning since I came here. The Wolof word bocc is both a noun and a verb, not unusually in this language. It is how you would describe your blood relations, your family, but it also means to share.

Both concepts, family and sharing, are more expansive here than they are in the States. Any man of my father’s generation in my village is also someone I could call my father or my uncle, and anyone as old as my Grandmother Bodey is my grandparent as well. There aren’t that many last names in Senegal, maybe fifty or so, but everyone with my last name is also my bocc. Crowing wealthy fat women in cars to Dakar are delighted to find out that their little sister and I have the same first name. It establishes something between us, even though it’s obvious that my name isn’t actually Aissa, even if the time in which we actually share a physical space is limited to five hours or so, and we never meet again after that.

Sharing in Senegal is different too. Every day before lunch, my compound and the family closely related to us next door switch plates of food. It doesn’t matter if the two dishes are different and one family is worse off for having swapped a plate of fish and vegetables for a bowl of plain, dry rice. The households always share and never begrudge anything. Anyone passing through or by the compound at lunch or dinnertime is called in to share the meal, even if it’s just a bite, even if they’re a stranger here. Children who come upon a piece of hard candy will split it with their back teeth and hand out tiny fragments to each of their friends, anyone who’s present. Can you imagine asking an American four-year old to split a Jolly Rancher with her friend? Wouldn’t happen.

I know I’ve commented on this before, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Life in Senegal, especially in rural areas, is a constant stream of reminders of how connected we are to the people around us, how vital others are to our own existence and happiness, and what our role and position is within the group. When two people meet and go through the greeting ritual, they will repeat each other’s last name over and over again. Even if they’re just saying good morning, it can go on for a while. Recognizing someone and saying their last name is a way of affirming for that person that she has a place here, that she has relationships in the village, that she’s connected to everyone. It’s how you say that you’re home, and that the person you’re speaking with belongs here too.

The same type of thing happens at events, too. Everyone in the village, and many people from nearby places, shows up for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. No matter how affluent the couple getting married or the family of the new mother, all the people coming to celebrate the occasion will bring some money, a length of fabric, or a new cooking pot as a gift. They know that on the occasion of a birth, death, or wedding in their house, all the same people will reciprocate. When I imagine all the property that changes hands, and especially when I think of how the money gets passed back and forth, I imagine a vast net that stretches all over Senegal, holding people close, leaving no one out.

It’s all something we miss out on in the States. There’s less need for a constant reminder that we are not alone, perhaps. We have cell phones and the Internet and a reliable postal service, after all. But there’s also less need for closeness and trust. Here, you buy vegetables from your aunt and bread from your dad and you go the carpenter that your family always goes to and you get your clothing made at the same tailor as all of your most stylish friends. In the States, we can trust that products and services are going to be of a certain quality, that doctors are trained well, that cars won’t just give out, that we’ll never be stuck on the side of the road, miles and miles from home. Here in Senegal, none of that is guaranteed. So if the car you’re in breaks down, it’s midnight, and you’re hours from a major city, it helps to know that you can walk into the nearest village, pick any compound, and find a family there. The family will offer you food and water, and probably you’ll be welcome to spend the night, and odds are they’ll know someone who’s going to be headed in your direction tomorrow: would you like a ride?

When I left the States, I left behind a lot of important relationships. I know they’re still there, at least for the most part. They’re more real, in many ways, than what I have here in Senegal. After all, sometimes people are nice to me because my skin is white. But there’s something so easy to trust here, something I know I can rely upon. I don’t have to work at relationships or try to build stronger ties. I can disappear and come back the next day, the next month, the next year, and the reaction from my family would be the same when I walked back into the compound: quiet happiness, fuss-free greetings, and a quick reintegration back into the fold, the daily life, the closeness and community. They can’t imagine that I could change in any significant way.

I can’t be sure that it’ll be so easy when I come home to the States. The family across the country, the friends I left two years ago with sadness; I’ll see some of them again soon, but then I’m leaving again for Senegal. Senegal is not a place I’m ready to leave, and the States is not a place I’m ready to live again. This trip will be a little bit of an experiment in coming home, and while I’m happy to do it, I’m more sure of what I’ll feel landing again in Dakar than touching down in Los Angeles.

Love and guts,

- Jessie

P.S. See you soon. Which is good news, really.


  1. Jessie
    I do hope to see you when your home.

  2. Miss Seiler - You can walk into my compound anytime for a fuss free meal, a quiet sleep and a ride to the next time. Just saying.
    Hope to see you soon for a hug