When we first moved to Senegal, many fellow expats warned us not to trust the Senegalese, to keep our distance. A give and take relationship was impossible, they assured us, because the Senegalese, gentle as they may seem, were not culturally capable of a reciprocal friendship. I remember thinking, whenever I would hear such admonissions, and they were frequent, that surely these expats were missing something. They weren’t looking deep enough, not able to invest in the time and patience it must take to build a relationship. It seemed like a gross generalization, a dehumanizing one, for all of us. And so, I chose to ignore it.
This story proves them all wrong. It happened to my husband Richard, on a recent ordinary day, which is of course when serendipity is most likely to strike. On this particular occasion, serendipity (such a feminine word) was ushered onto the scene by her ever-watchful companion, karma.
A 25-year old Toyota Landcruiser possesses lots of charms, particularly when you live in Africa. Talk about rugged. Talk about sturdy. Talk about able to get us home on a mud path laden with crater sized, rain-drenched pot holes. For all of these reasons and more, we love our car. And everyone knows that an old car, one without computer controls or online manuals, needs a veteran mechanic. A trustworthy mechanic who knows his engines and isn’t afraid to take them apart. It took us a long time to find Babou, but we knew he was the one when he listened to our car the first time and said, “she’s sick. I can fix her.” No technical mumbo jumbo, just a straightforward prognosis with a fair price. He is a professional and an expert–someone we trust.
And so, over the last few months, we’ve recommended him to friends, acquaintences, business owners–anyone in need of a good mechanic. Word of mouth is how most good news travels here and it’s always feels good to know that you are helping all involved.
One day this week, Richard travelled to a remote village to work with an elderly Haitian architect who has built an artist colony. He needed help completing the design and execution of a natural pool, one that uses aquatic plants instead of chlorine, to filter impurities. It wasn’t a big job, but one that Richard was happy to work on out of great respect for this gentleman.
As Richard was leaving in the afternoon, he got as far as the next village and realized he didn’t have much gas. He pulled over to see how much money he had in his wallet- he would need the equivilent of $20 to get him home. To his great horror, he had forgotten his wallet at home. As he stood outside in the morning heat leaning against the car, wondering how he was going to get home, he pulled out his telephone to call me. No credit. (Cellphones in Senegal work on phone cards which you replenish as you go). He didn’t even have the gas required to travel back to his client.
Just then, he heard someone call his name. As he turned around, he saw Babou trotting across the street.
“Babou, what are you doing way out here in the middle of the week?”, Richard asked.
He pointed across the street to a car on the side of the road. “I have a client who lives in this village. His car broke down this morning and he called me to come fix it.”
They were both a long way from home, on the same day, in the same village, on the same street, at the same time.
Richard felt great relief at seeing not only a familiar face, but a friend. He could wait until Babou had fixed the other car and catch a ride back home. He’d somehow have to get back there to pick up our car, but he’d worry about that later. He was about to explain his predicament when Babou patted him on the shoulder and said,
“I’m so glad to see you. I was going to stop by your house later this afternoon.”
“You’re welcome any time Babou, but why did you want to see me?”
“I wanted to thank you. You’ve recommended so many clients to me lately and it has helped my business greatly. I’m no longer struggling. I can sleep at night. You have helped me more than you know.”
“Please” he said, “take this as my way of thanks. I know it’s not much, but maybe you can buy some gas with it.”
With that, Babou handed Richard $20.00.