Stories of Serendipity Part II: The Mechanic

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.

The Mechanic:

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.

Stories of Serendipity: The Yellow House



I’ve been thinking alot about serendipity lately. And I’m not the only one. I hear stories all the time about people crossing each other’s paths, resulting in a significant exchange, leaving both people with the distinct impression that they were meant to meet, for reasons big or small. Hearing about these stories is serendipitous in itself. It’s hard to deny that some intangible force, be it God, Allah, Buddha, the Universe, or wherever we place our faith, helps us work things out together. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that these events tend to occur in direct proportion to our current personal and global fragility. Times are tough and scary. Tragedies touch us either personally or distantly, but we hear of or read about them often. The good news is, if we listen, we will also hear about (or hopefully experience) chance meetings, small miracles if you like, that lend a bit of grace and purpose to our day.

Here is one such story:

The Yellow House:
There is a young Senegalese man who often sings at the top of his lungs in what I presume to be a mixture of Wolof and Arabic. Sometimes he wanders out in the bush behind our house, slowly weaving among the giant Baobob trees. But most often he can be seen outside a nearby uninhabited house, wedged into the corner where two outside walls meet. He sings every day, but always at different times. Most days, I’m ashamed to admit, I want to wring his neck, or ducktape his mouth. There is nothing beautiful or particularly comforting about his singing. In fact, it’s rather annoying. But nonetheless plaintive.

This morning I went in search of eggs. As I was walking along the dirt path towards the village, the singer began to wail. I could tell by the direction of his voice that he was in his usual spot, a spot I couldn’t avoid. As uncomfortable as I was, I would have to pass him on my way to the boutique. I’ve always avoided direct contact with this young man, preferring to glimpse him off in the distance. Afterall, anyone who sings that loudly in the middle of nowhere has to be a little off their rocker, right?

As I approached, he suddenly stopped singing, which for some reason made me feel guilty. I had always envisioned a crazed, desperate individual with frantic eyes. Instead, here stood a calm, if not a little embarrassed, young guy wearing surfer shorts and a Bob Marley t-shirt. I said hello and told him not to stop singing on my account. He shuffled his feet a little and looked down at the ground.

“What exactly are you singing about?” I asked.

“My problems,” he replied. “I sing to Allah, but only when there is wind. The wind carries my voice and the echo carries Allah’s message back to me.”

“That’s lovely,” I said. “Does it really work?”

“Sometimes.”

As I couldn’t think of much more to say, I asked his name.

“Moustapha Diouf.”

“Nice to meet you, Moustapha Diouf. My name is Ellen.”

He nodded his head but didn’t make a move, which I took to mean that we had gotten close enough for one day. As I turned to continue along the path, he said,

“Allah has a message for you too.”

I stopped.

“Oh, really?”

Okay, I thought, so the loose screw diagnosis was accurate afterall. Maybe Elvis has got something to say while you’re at it, buddy. But I had stopped, hadn’t I? The jaded Catholic who was hard-pressed to define my “beliefs”, had been stopped in my tracks by the possibility that I had a pending message . . . from Allah. Somehow, if felt oddly comforting.

“What’s the message?” I ventured.

“I don’t know, but you’ll find it at the yellow house.” And with that, he took up his singing again.

The yellow house is an old, wooden, barn-like structure–a small miracle in itself in that it stands at all. I don’t know how old it is, but I often marvel at the fact that termites haven’t devoured it. I pass it every day. It’s beautiful in an inexplicable way. But, I thought as I walked along, if Moustapha is right, today it will have new meaning.

I walk past the house slowly, peering towards the windows, listening. But I don’t really believe, not really. I stop, continue on, circle back. Nothing. No one. This is ridiculous, I tell myself. I linger in front for a few minutes and then decide to try the back. There is no door. The house, afterall, is abandoned. No one inside, only fallen boards with exposed rusted nails, shreds of faded fabric. A couple of pigeons in the rafters. Suddenly I’m crying. It’s like someone has just told me there is no Santa Claus. No Santa, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, no God, no Allah. No Magical Yellow House with even the smallest tibit of Wisdom.

I continue on to the boutique where I go every day to stock up on sundries. Abdou tells me he doesn’t have any eggs yet and to try the boutique a little father along in the village. I trudge my way through a sandy street I’m not familiar with and spot the boutique up on the left. As I’m about to enter, a little boy runs up to me and sticks out his hand. “Bonjour toubab,” hello, white lady. He is about four and offers me a sturdy handshake and huge smile. This cheers me up, so I buy him a piece of candy inside the boutique, but no eggs. They haven’t been delivered yet.

When I step outside, the little boy is across the street, leaning against the wall. He has a deflated bicycle wheel in his hand and is studying it carefully, trying to find the hole. He sees me and there is that big smile again. When I hand him the candy he throws his arms around my legs. I ask him where he lives. He points to the gate and says, “fi, kai fi”, here–come with me,” and drags me through the gate.

Inside, there’s a large courtyard filled with chickens and a few goats, and several plastic buckets filled with laundry in different stages of soaking. In the corner is woman, who I assume is his mother, busy packaging the fresh eggs she has collected this morning. She stands to greet me and says, literally translated, “you are welcome here.”

I ask if her eggs are for sale and she says yes, gingerly placing twelve into a piece of cloth. As I hand her the money, I finally take in the house behind her, which is small . . . and crumbling in places . . . but clean and bright. . . . and a lovely shade of yellow.

On my way back home, my eggs tucked into my knapsack, I look for Moustapha. I want to tell him about the yellow house.  I listen for his voice, but he is nowhere to be found. The wind has died down.