Flight of the Ephemerals

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photo credit: endless-nightmare.tumblr.com

There’s a restaurant in the village where we take the kids when they are in need of the kind of comfort that only a good pizza can provide. This establishment makes a respectable one baked crispy and thin in a half-moon brick oven.  Although they have a full menu offering a variety of options, whenever I inquire about anything other than pizza, I am told, “We are out of that tonight, Madame.” So pizza it is.

The proprietor of this establishment is a 50-ish Frenchman named Jacques who has a thick shock of white hair and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts. On this particular night, he has clearly overindulged and is asleep at the bar when we arrive. We approach gingerly, not knowing whether to clear our throats, or turn around and leave. Thankfully (for us, not him), the young Senegalese waitress, Fatu, emerges from the kitchen and slaps him on the back of the head. He sits up abruptly, his bloodshot eyes rolling about, attempting focus.

“Oh”, he says. “I was wondering where you were.” I can only imagine by “you”, he means any customer in general–the restaurant is empty.

“Right ziss way, my ‘merican frenz,” Jacques says with an exaggerated wink in my direction. Scrutinizing the room as though he is hard-pressed to find a table, he ushers us to one near the open door, hands two large menus to Sunny and Jamie and pulls out my chair to seat me. As he leans in, my nose is affronted by an afternoon’s worth of Pastis and stale cigarettes. He returns a few minutes later and places eight wine glasses on the table.

“I don’t think we’ll be needing all these glasses,” my husband says. Jacques looks at the four of us, then the table and finally says, “Oui, oui, oui, pardon,” removing one of the glasses. This man is clearly drunk. Careening back to the bar, he puts both hands around the cup of coffee Fatu has poured for him as though it were a buoy in the middle of the ocean.

Several tables fill up over the course of our meal and the place takes on a convivial ambiance with layered notes of several languages. I can discern the two most obvious: French and Wolof, but also catch bits of Italian, a cockneyed British and Serer, the language of Cassamance to the South. I love this about Senegal–the small cosmos that gathers at any given moment. Tonight it is unexpected in this rainy season, in this little-known eatery with it’s checkered table cloths and plastic palm tree salt and pepper shakers; it’s poorly rendered murals of Africans running to catch the bus with baskets of fish on their heads–their noses, breasts and feet large and caricatured. But it feels comfortable at this moment, this ordinary evening.

As darkness falls, several winged bugs begin drifting in through the open door. They are silent and delicate, resembling dragonflies with a short rounded body. Soon, there are twenty or thirty hovering around us, landing on the table, alighting on fork tines and shirt sleeves, only to take off again towards the ceiling. No one seems concerned but us. My son Jamie, who is particularly bug-phobic, is standing on his chair, screeching and waving his hands about, ducking the onslaught. Jacques comes over and says, “Don’t worry, it’s just the ephemerals. This will all be over in a few minutes. Regardez!” Perching again on his barstool, he gestures in a wide arc at the swarm, as though he has arranged this spectacle for our entertainment. My daughter wonders aloud if they are fairies.

These insects are born during the rainy season and live for a single day. Not many people get the chance to witness their struggled, short life span. It takes them the better part of a day to hatch and they are fully formed only at dusk. Tonight, they have come to our restaurant, attracted by the single bright overhanging bulb near our table. They ascend slowly and purposefully, their wings beating furiously towards their beacon. But just as they reach the summit, they lose their top set of wings and fall fast to the ground, where they struggle for a minute or two, then exhausted, surrender. The life cycle that we are witnessing is narrated  by an old Senegalese man sitting at the table next to us. I ask if these insects exist elsewhere and he tells me he doesn’t know. He has never left Senegal.

We find ourselves riveted, cheering them up and on towards the light. “Go, go, up, fly!” As they fall, Jamie, who is no longer afraid for himself, but deeply sad on these creatures’ behalf, tries to catch them before they fall in hopes of saving them. But nature would have it otherwise. Within minutes, these beautiful ephemerals have lived their short lives and their bodies lie motionless on the floor. Only their delicate, transparent wings remain, floating through the air, taking flight again, independent of their host, on the current the ceiling fan provides. They descend slowly only to be lifted again into the air.

As we leave the restaurant, we turn to see Fatu sweeping the remains of the ephemerals out the door along with the sand and crumbs of the day. We walk home through the village with a flashlight. People are out on their stoops, chatting and singing in low voices. The electricity has gone out and the street is dark. But there are candles everywhere illuminating our path and the stars are bright and numerous.

Walk With Me, Leah

IMG_3171I woke at dawn to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to the mosque, as I do every morning. There is a rotation of three male voices and I never know which one will call me back to consciousness. To my relief, today it is the one I call “The Gregorian” because his chanting has a delicate, clear cadence, the kind that can ellicite calm and touch you in that small hollow under the breastplate, that odd place that beckons a quick breath. Certain Gospel voices can do this to me as well. There are lots of people who can sing, but not all of them get the message across. Like the other two muezzins, who are doing their job, but lack conviction and passion. On the mornings when they shout “Allah akbar” from the turret, it sounds like a call to obligation, but this morning, as I hear The Gregorian, I imagine the men in their robes, walking from all directions toward that voice and I am almost tempted to dress and walk to the mosque myself, just to see, to be led. But then I remember, women are not welcome in the main part. So instead I pick up the small notebook that sits beside my bed where I write down those “urgent” things that need to be recorded in the middle of the night and head to the kitchen for coffee.

Yesterday I was starting to feel the impending sadness that January 9th brings, because it is the day my close friend, Leah, died two years ago. Richard noticed and said, “Ellen, if you want to be happy, you have to start to forget.” I got angry and demanded how he could possibly ask me to forget her. He said, “What I mean is that you have to try to forget the sorrow. As long as you sit with the pain, she isn’t with you. But if you can figure out a way to honor her, she’ll be next to you.” Richard is not always so philosophical, but from time to time, he offers up just the right wisdom. Like small baubles which float to the surface, they have escaped the buried wreckage. Like all of us, he has had his own share of life’s collisions . So at some point in the middle of the night, I decided to write down the pain I felt over her loss. I wanted to let it out, get it down, so that I could think about how I would honor her instead. The small light on my phone wasn’t working, but I wrote anyway in the dark, scralling over the page, letting the tears come, knowing I would be able to decipher my own handwriting in the morning, as least get the meaning. But as I sat at the kitchen counter this morning, and opened the notebook, I saw that the page was blank. Only impressions were left. The ink in my pen had gotten caught on a philament of dust and all I had managed to record were scratches and traces. The page was scarred. I stared at it for a long time and then I began to write this piece.

I will honor Leah today by taking a long walk. One of my fondest and last memories of her was our Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Chicago the year before she died. It had been some time since we’d seen each other and we had a lot of catching up to do. She had emailed me frequently during the training period. “Congrats on getting up to 6 miles . . .10 miles . . 15 miles . . . Don’t forget to buy dry-wick socks . . .I saw that you reached your fundraising goal, congrats . . . see you next week.” Leah was a life coach long before she put a professional label on it. She was all about setting goals, getting through the hard parts, laying stepping stones, celebrating victories. She was also someone who didn’t let you get away with much. I remember a Sunday at her apartment while we were at Duke. I was insecure, immature and ravenous for acceptance and approval. I started talking about one or another girl who I seemed to run into at all the parties, who was always perfectly quaffed, wore a different outfit every time and seemed to always say the right thing . . . but she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Leah stayed silent while she listened and then at one point looked off to the right and up to the ceiling as though she were waiting to devine the right response. Finally she looked right at me and said softly, “why are you spending so much time talking about this girl, when clearly she isn’t worth it? You’ve got plenty of friends who love you, you’re smart, you’re beautiful. It sounds to me like maybe you’re jealous, which you shouldn’t be. That’s all I’m saying.” And she didn’t mean,’ don’t read into it any further’, she meant ‘that’s all I’m saying’ as in, ‘end of conversation, ’cause I ain’t wasting any more time on this and neither are you.’ I called it the “Leah mirror.” She had a way of holding the truth up in front of you without making you feel judged or defensive and in a way, Richard did the same thing for me.

Leah wanted to come to Senegal. I will honor her by taking a long walk. I will show her. Maybe I will turn right and walk along the red dirt road that leads to the sacred Baobob trees, where the path is covered with fronds from the Flamboyants which have started to shed. It will be chilly at first and I will be sure to breathe in the scent of drying grasses and the small ground vines that hold purple wildflowers. I will smell the morning fires from the small Peul huts off to my left, wave to the women hunkered down over their steaming pots. I will listen to the “tchik, tchik” of the shepard leading his cattle to pasture. I will continue on until I reach the fields of bissap crops, ready to be harvested, those crimson petals that when boiled down to their essence, can heal. Or maybe I will turn left and walk through the brushland towards town. A fire last week burned all of the brush and the earth is scorched underfoot. It releases small clouds of black dust and shows my footprints perfectly. I have been here and I will go there. It will start to get hot, so I will take off my sweater and let the sun warm my shoulders and face. I will pass small groups of Senegalese children on their way to Koran school. Dressed in bright colors and carrying their Korans tightly to their chests, they will stop talking when they see me and smile. Some will say hello, others won’t. I will hear one of them say, “toubab denge Wolof”, the white woman speaks Wolof. I will smell their bread filled with spiced lentils, wrapped in brown paper, which they will eat outside on the stoop before entering the building. Next I will begin to see the houses that have been started and left unfinished until more money comes. They are signs of hope that the future will be built upon. Then, as I move further into the village, I will stop and talk to Samba, who owns the small bodega where I buy flour and potatoes, garlic, spices. He will be sitting just outside playing checkers with his friends at a rickety wooden table. He always wins and never cheats. I owe him 50 cents from a week ago, but he never has change, so I will buy something I don’t need and hand him $1.

I might even walk all the way to the sea, wind my way down the rubbled lane between the brown house with the orange roof and the green house with the brown roof. Then I will have to jump off the sea wall because the waves have eroded the stairs. I will stop for just a minute to take in the vast expanse of the ocean and sift through the shells that have been deposited by the tide. Pocketing my favorites, the welks, I will feel them against my leg as I walk. The vendors will be out by then and I’ll pass ancient women with skin like blue night carrying bundles of clothes, baskets of beaded necklaces and shell earings, African dolls, Pareos. I will stop and greet them. The wind will circle up under their long patterned skirts as we talk and I will catch a glimpe of foot, flat and smooth from decades of sand. I will buy something, a trinket, because they will walk much longer and further than me today. I will add it to the shells in my pocket as a reminder of today. Soon, as the tide rises, I’ll take off my shoes and walk in the water, which will be calm at that hour and starting to warm up. The salt will sting my skin as the water pulls away but each time it comes back, it will soothe.

As I head home, I’ll hear a song, that voice, the muezzin calling for mid-morning prayer, my breath catching again. Leah will hear it too because it is calling her. I’ll want her to come home with me, stay a little longer. But I’ll let her go, knowing there are many others who need to walk with her today, and always.

The Beauty of the Underbelly

 

This morning, as I was walking to the bakery along the dirt road with Sunny, something caught my eye to the right, a shiny something that refracted the sunlight overhead. I looked. And in that fraction of a second that drew my attention, a large machete sliced open the throat of a living steer. The two Senegalese, one holding the cow as it lay on its side, the other wielding his knife so expertly, both looked up at me, momentarily distracted. Their look was neither startled nor apologetic. It simply acknowledged my unexpected presence. I must have made a sound, some small leak of soul escaping through my fingers, although my hand instinctively flew to my mouth to silence it for Sunny’s sake. The animal, by contrast, lay very still and quiet, the blood leaving it’s body at an astonishing rate. I could tell this beast was still alive, it’s eyes placid and resigned, but still very much in the world. I willed it to Cry out! Protest! Accuse! because I couldn’t, not on it’s behalf. This was food, afterall, for many people. I wondered if it’s vocal chords had been severed on purpose to lessen the degree of assault on human ears or if an animal of this nature merely accepts it’s death with dignity, knowing that struggling against it wouldn’t alter the final outcome. Either way, in the end, I was thankful that my ears (and Sunny’s) had been spared the unimaginable sound of this massive animal’s parting.

A very different glint by our shared sun had thankfully attracted Sunny in that same moment to the opposite side of the path. While I had witnessed this animal’s death, she had seized upon a scattering of sequins fallen from the loosened thread of a colorful prayer shawl. She hopped forward picking up the trail of teal, gold, fuscia and saffron and held them in her cupped hand like found treasure, oblivious to the scene unfolding to her right. For just a brief moment, I felt a selfish and urgent need to show her the cow so that someone, anyone, could share in the horror of it with me. But I herded her forward instead, shielding her from that particular reality. Had my eyes not caught the glean of the machete, just as it was raised, at that perfect angle where the sun could wink off the steel blade, I believe I would have passed unaware. The entire scene, the empty dirt lot, the fawn-colored steer, his earthy textured horns, the shells, straw, sticks and rocks, all melded together in a bland spectrum of brown common to a field of nothing in particular. Even the men would have remained in my peripheral vision, which would assume they were going about their business, whatever that was, as I went about mine.

But I had seen it, the slaughter of a cow, and I still needed to hold my daughter’s hand, admire her new-found sequins, walk to the bakery and buy bread, greeting villagers along the way. It’s not that witnessing an animal’s death hadn’t made an impression on me. It had. But not as much as I would have thought. In this context, given the surroundings, I knew it was a necessary action. I led us on a different route home, wondering what they would do with the cow next, how it would get “processed”, where it’s remains would be disposed. (Later that day, curiosity having gotten the better of me, I passed by the site. There was no trace of animal or man, only a small raised mound of dirt, the contents of which I could only imagine.) Our time here has slowly allowed us an understanding of basic needs being met, of a culture where everything from praying, to corruption, to basic survival, to putting food on the table is there for the seeing if we choose, or haplessly witness. There are also luxury hotels and an entire village rife with convenience, where the underbelly is hidden out of sight for those who choose not to see. I understand perfectly. It’s sometimes hard to swallow.

The upside of the total exposure we’ve chosen is that my children now know that the chickens they chase down the road are the very same we roast in the oven. Jamie has assisted in the process of scaling and filleting a fish that he puts directly in the pan for me to saute. They know that the seeds we brought over in our suitcases will one day become the vegetables and fruits they will eat. I remember visiting a farm as a child, watching the milking of the cows and understanding for the first time that the cartons in the refrigerator at home actually came from an animal. We, as a nation, are so far removed from our food sources that we can easily ignore anything that took place before they reached the grocery store and eventually our table. Seeing a cow being slaughtered is not something I recommend, however, most people are unaware of the misery our steaks and mcnuggets went through before they got neatly packaged for us– being raised shoulder to shoulder, fed antibiotic-laced grain, devoid of sunlight and an instinctive, genetically sound diet. I know I’m generalizing and that the trend towards food education, organic choices and fair treatment of animals is a growing part of the American conscious, however, unless you are a farmer or tend a flock of cattle, you will be spared the nitty gritty.

My children sit next to women with babies at their naked breasts and watch intently as they take this most basic form of nourishment. They don’t blink an eye, having so far been spared too many cultural taboos, while my eyes remain averted out of respectful and ingrained habit. They ask me questions that I might never have answered if they had only glanced a baby’s head ducked under a baggy T-shirt. Our whole family has become immune to most of what seemed shocking when we first arrived: people sitting cross-legged on the ground, eating from large bowls with their fingers; women herding flocks of filthy goats from their small yards; those same goats eating tin, plastic, filament grain bags, even glass; men walking arm in arm, or hand and hand, signifying nothing but deep friendship; women carrying large basins balanced on their heads filled with laundry, grains or fruits, babies bound tightly to their backs with brightly colored cloth; the devout lying prone in prayer on a woven mat in a corner of the grocery store because it’s time to pray. These are all things that are so foreign to us, to our ways of behaving and thinking, that they are hard to look at in the beginning, let alone understand and accept. After a time though, they become an important part of the whole beautiful tapestry of the Senegalese culture and it’s people. The way I was raised, the things I was exposed to are not better or worse than what we see here, just different. There is no shame in either. All I can do is try to work the two together so they make sense for my children and most importantly, not impose my own beliefs on the Senegalese. I’m trying hard.

I’ve even come to accept the groups of children who walk along the beach with sticks or rocks in their hands, ready to defend themselves against the packs of stray dogs that invariably approach them. When the two bands meet, the dogs bare their teeth, growl and lower themselves to the ground, menacing these children, who in turn will beat them with the sticks or throw the rocks at them until they part ways, sometimes calling a truce, sometimes leaving a wounded dog, other times a bitten child. Interestingly, I’ve noticed these dogs don’t approach or threaten us and have even been known to roll over submissively, leaving me to wonder which came first: the aggressive dog or the aggressive child? It doesn’t matter, this is their long-standing relationship and I don’t foresee it changing anytime soon. I tried once, and only once, to intervene, to gently tell the children not to hit the dogs, to just keep walking, arrogantly assuming that my adult (and superior) wisdom would break the spell. They listened to me in my broken Wolof, dropped their rocks and sticks and walked on slowly, glancing back at me for assurances. They were unarmed, but the scent of their fear still drifted over to the dogs who charged them from behind. In the end, it was me who threw the rocks. I have tended to the wounds of both a child and a dog on different occasions, wiping away the blood, disinfecting the marks, bandaging the aggressions. As an outsider, I simply cannot take sides.

Keur Leah

 

 


Construction on our house is coming to an end. In a few short weeks, Richard and the earth team will stop the building process and begin the laborious procedure of covering the walls with layer upon layer of lyme and palm oil. The long awaited rainy season is imminent. It will give clues to it’s arrival, they tell us, with thicker air, softer skin, fewer micro-dust tunnels whirling down the open corridors, and skies that will fade from blue to a full spectrum of grey. It will tease those who have planted their crops, anxious for the first drops to inaugurate the growing and feeding cycle. The abundance of produce will help relieve the absence of money from tourists. One day someone will say “today, it will rain,” and inevitably, it will. We will be gone by then and so our job is to protect what we have built so that, when we return, we can continue. The growth will resume.

Now that the mounds of dirt and wells of mud have reunited to form their walls as Richard intended, I can see a real house, imagine walking from room to room, living a life there. Before we leave, this house, which started as an idea and now has a presence, needs a name. There are no street names or numbers to identify homes here in Senegal. The wealthy French give their large beach-front villas monikers like “Eucalyptus Shores”, and their friends successfully pick their way along the sandy lanes until they see the large, bold letters on the surrounding walls outside the security gate. The locals simply identify their homes by their family name. “Keur” in Wolof means both “heart” and “home”, so a typical Senegalese house might have a small sign outside the front door which says “Keur Diop” or the heart and home of the Diop family. We first started thinking of names for the house when it was still Richard’s dream drawn up on paper, before we ever set foot in Senegal. But the hard lines of a computer rendered plan couldn’t possibly have hinted at the soul of this house, couldn’t have told me how I would feel standing in it’s rooms, envisioning it’s future.

When we first decided to come to Senegal, I remember calling my friend Leah to tell her. Senegal was a place that was important to Leah. Her love of Africa was immense and she wanted to discover as much of it as possible. Among her many accomplishments, she had served as Director of Development for Asheshi University Foundation in Ghana. She had done substantial fundraising from their offices in Seattle and had visited the University in Ghana as a strategic consultant. We had long, in-depth phone calls during which she reiterated her desire to be a political ambassador to Africa one day, a role I feel would have fit her perfectly. Ciss, her boyfriend of many years, was a native of Senegal (a lovely fact that has never been lost on me) and together, we concocted dreams of long visits split between his family and our house, converging the coincidences of her world. She was the most diplomatic person I have ever known. She was optimistic, pragmatic and yet a dreamer in the most extraordinary ways. That’s why I knew she would be a champion of our project. In addition to her desire to experience Senegal, Leah was very sensitive to the environment. Her dream was to one day build an eco-house with a small footprint, a house that was a responsible reflection of who she was–solar panels, geo-thermal heating, a green roof planted with water filtering species. A house of her own that was comfortable and beautiful on the inside, discreet and unpretentious on the outside. Much like Leah herself.

“That is just soooo cool,” she said when I told her on the phone. I could feel her smile. “An earth house, I’m just so impressed. When can I come? No, first I want to hear all about it.” I knew she meant it. She was the person who taught me how to listen–patiently, lovingly listen. She interrupted me only when she couldn’t contain herself and needed to know something in further detail. “Now wait. So explain how the bricks are made.” After an hour, I hung up feeling like we had made the best decision of our lives, her support and enthusiasm lifting me up to a place where all my nagging doubts lay in a puddle in the past. I could only envision our future as Leah saw it–and it no longer felt scary. She had brought sense to it, extracted it’s virtues and grandness and held them up for me to see.

This was perhaps Leah’s greatest attribute–her ability to break down what felt like huge barriers to our dreams and successes. How many people did she help realize their potential? I hope to find out one day. She made her living as a life and business coach, but those of us who were fortunate enough to know her as a true friend, or sister, or daughter, know that she served as a catalyst for great change in our lives at least once. Helping me put aside my fears about this adventure in Africa and promising it’s success was her last great gift to me. She passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, on January 9th, three weeks after I arrived in Senegal.

There are days now, very few, when I don’t think of her. That’s what time and our ability to heal will do. Then there are those moments in the void, when I realize she will never come to Senegal, that I will never see her again, and I feel cheated, for me and for her. But mostly, I sense her spirit near, in the way I look at things differently since her death. I think less about what I have lost and more about what she gave me in the 25 years I knew and loved her. All those collective memories, conversations, shared experiences, inspirations that make up a friendship are like a pleasant aura that stays with me. All I have to do is turn to it and she is there, reassuring me once again that it will all be ok, that ideas and dreams are meant to be lived. I feel her spirit every time I sit down to write and the words just won’t come. “Well, you can’t just give up,” I hear her say. And so I don’t.

And neither does Richard when the work gets hard and the days get long. It all seems so obvious now in a way it couldn’t have before we lost Leah. Our house here, with it’s simplicity and bare beauty, it’s openness to possibility, feels to me like the essence of Leah, like I could turn the corner and she would be there, admiring the openings toward the sky. It is our sanctuary, her sanctuary in Africa. In her honor, and with the promise that its walls will echo with her laughter and its doors will welcome with her arms, our house will be called “Keur Leah”–Leah’s heart, Leah’s home. It was built from the earth, and one day, many years from now, when it is no longer inhabited, it will be broken down to it’s basic components, back to the earth. I think Leah would have liked that idea.

“When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.”
~Mary Elizabeth Frye