"Western Africa 2012" story # 14

Saint-Louis, Senegal           July 17, 2012

My name, upon entering Senegal, was changed to "Dubob".
     I found it fitting that, in a country known for having good rhythm, the local word for "White person" sounded like something a jazz singer would sing. "A-dubop a-dubop a-dubob ..."
     Usually, I was called this by children whose round heads were bare except for smiles and big eyes.
     Usually, they followed the word "Dubob" with the phrase: "Donnez-moi le balon!" (Give me the football!) Sometimes, they said, "Donnez-moi l'argent pour acheter le balon." (Give me money to buy a football.) - which was a more reasonable request. But, usually they just told me to give them a football. Did they think I was a magician who held an endless supply of footballs behind my ear?
     In their over-sized clothes with tiny holes in them, they opened the door to my sand courtyard and peeked in to watch me writing.
     Large lizards - some them with sour yellow tails blending into black bodies blending into sour yellow heads - chased each other near me. Yellow finches with black faces and orange breasts chattered high above me, in the green rays of palm trees. I took a break from my writing to cut open and eat a sloppy mango.
     I'd been driven from the Mauritanian border to this village, the village of Bango, by a big man named Modou Ndiaye. My first image of Bango was one of palm tree stars hanging over fishermens' houses, on the shore of the tranquil brown Senegal River. Modou kept an extra room in this village, and he told me I could have it to myself for a few days. Perfect.
     This was "teranga" (the Senegalese word for "hospitality"). In incredibly hospitable Senegal, it was rare that I'd even have to buy food for myself. In Bango, I ate most of my meals with Ayoub, a fisherman who had thirteen children with two wives.
     But, I couldn't just sit around Bango eating mangoes. I had to continue my trip to the south.
     First, I checked out the northern Senegalese capital of Saint-Louis - a UNESCO World Heritage site.
     Part of the city rested on a long island in the middle of the Senegal River. I walked to it from the mainland, via a long bridge over the muddy river. Beautiful Senegalese women, some wearing bright dresses to their armpits, walked past me. The colonial buildings of the island looked wooden and lazy. They were mango red, banana yellow, coconut white, sunset purple.
     Reaching the island, I touched the first-floor window shutters of the buildings. Their wood felt so dry a termite would've starved. The tall door shutters on the second floors, and the balconies that wrapped around these floors, no doubt felt the same. I imagined New Orleans looked like this. But, these French streets were in Senegal; and friendly men invited me to view the wooden voodoo masks in their souvenir shops.
     I crossed another bridge and came to an even more run-down part of Saint-Louis which sat between the Senegal River and Atlantic Ocean. I quickly came to the ocean.
     Sand the color and fluffiness of a yellow lab retriever led to clear ocean waves that captured the blue of the sky and yellow of the sun. Small boys couldn't resist the urge to shove their faces into the sand. Other boys swam.
     People were everywhere, and all of them intersecting. Young men played soccer. Women dumped buckets of fish guts into the surf. Two horses, each pulling men on carts, raced down the beach. Even goats were on the beach! They scavenged.
     "Pirogue" fishing boats, the shape and size of boats rowed by viking prisoners, rested upon the sand. Each wooden boat wore blue, white, black, red, green, yellow paint. On their hulls, green-yellow-and-red Senegalese flags flapped proudly. A few of these boats were pushed by men into the sea. Kids helped push, and surprisingly none of them got run over.
     On my way off the beach, I asked one little girl, "Ca va?" (How's it going?) She was playing with a bucket of sand. "Ca va tres bien!" (It's going really well!) She smiled as she held her shovel.
     It was rare that I heard someone, except for myself, enthusiastically say things were going really well. It seemed that most people, in this part of the world and others, liked to tell sob stories. They needed (this), they didn't have (that).
     Maybe the moral to this story was that more people should play with buckets of sand?

By this point, I'd realized that kids were pronouncing "Dubob" with a "T" and not a "D". In agreement with French spelling rules, this Senegalese word was written:
     Being a toubab didn't help me to catch a ride, as I tried hitchhiking south from Saint-Louis. I gave up and took a bus. The bus traveled slowly. Nightfall neared. At this point, I sat with my backpack on my lap smooshed in-between people, and my destination was still two hours away. Outside, the moist sand of the Sahel stretched beneath elephant-skinned baobab trees.
     I'd always wanted to climb a baobab. And I'd never wanted to be smooshed in a bus. I asked the bus to stop, jumped out, and felt the best I'd felt all day. My friends in central Senegal could wait for me to visit them one more day.
     The baobabs rose up slowly from the land, as if made of a glue that wanted to stick to the ground, with long branches stretched off this clump. I leapt and caught a low branch then pulled myself twenty feet up into a baobab. Its trunk sounded hollow when I knocked on it. Colonies of parsley leaves grew on the branches.
     I remembered that, in Tanzania, people had told me about baobab fruit. I would be told in Senegal that the French name for this fruit was: "pain du singe" (literally: Wild Pigs' Bread). Maybe I could make a living climbing baobabs and selling this stuff? I knew a lot of wild pigs.
     I told my friends in central Senegal about my plan. I joked I'd already opened five shops in Bango. I'd employed the local kids to climb trees for me. If anyone bought "pain du singe" in Bango, I got a commission.
     Birima - a tall girl with shiny, silvery black skin and gorgeous, pillowy lips (whom I'd met while hitchhiking through the Sahara) - said it was traditional belief that devils lived in baobabs. These devils liked to smack people and knock them out of trees.
     I asked Birima's uncle, a military man, if he'd ever climbed a baobab.
     "Je n'oses pas." (I don't dare.)
     Birima's Aunt Lisa showed me the sack of "pain du singe" which she'd bought recently. The fruit resembled pieces of cardboard covered in asbestos. It didn't taste much better.
     I said, "Ca c'est pas bon. Je penses que ma enterprise ne va marcher pas." (This stuff isn't good. I don't think my business is going to be a success.)

A rash developed on my forearm, knee, and clavicle. Was this a result of climbing the baobab?
     I learned that the "pain du singe" which Aunt Lisa had shown me actually grew on the baobabs inside of green globes. I learned to suck on the "pain du singe", which tasted like a mixture of honey, butter, and unsweetened chocolate.
     Aunt Lisa taught me how to make a juice with it. She mixed it with water and sugar. She added unsweetened peanut butter made from grilled peanuts. She stirred this with a whisk until the "pain du singe" dissolved off the hard, black beans it covered. She got rid of the beans. She handed me a nutty, waxy shake as rich and delicious as any juice made from nuts.
     Even though I had this wonderful rich drink in my stomach, I felt lousy when I left Birima and Aunt Lisa's house. I'd decided to return to northern Bango. This was pulling me away from my ultimate destination of Guinea-Bissau, a country which was seeming more and more unreachable.
     I sat in the comfortable front seat of a bus and looked out at the land. Due to the arrival of the rainy season, fresh grass sprouted up from the red clay. Baobabs hosted bright green cups for leaves. If all of Senegal were this Eden-like, I would've wanted to walk all the way through it.
     Meditating, I tried to feel the personality of each baobab.
     Most - with their wrinkly, folded trunks - were wise, old men.
     Most were warty, trollish hunchbacks. Some were short, fat women who lived in caves and cooked soup for their husbands. A tall and clean, thin baobab resembled a young gentleman - bursting with freshness. A long, low one was a rhinoceros. Most were guys with all their weight around their waists, with tiny pectorals and biceps, with long stretched-out necks and pinheads.
     Looking at these baobabs, I smiled.
     Ca va tres bien! Merci.

the Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Moustapha & wife; Modou Ndiaye; Ndiassar; Mars; and Mars for rides!
Much thanks to Modou Ndiaye; Cheikh, Cheikh-Oumar, Tant Lisa, Amadou, Aisha, Alima, & Hadi; and Mame Diarra Busu Sad, Birima, Mariam, Bijou, Mama, Biram, & Dior for places to stay!

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