We have returned to Senegal in the midst of the rainy season, a time when tourists and expats flee en masse, escaping the heat and daily storms. These foreigners describe the summer months here as savage and unrelenting, both in terms of the weather and the mood. The locals remain silent when they overhear their most precious and abundant season described this way. I have even detected a smile or two, suggesting that it was perhaps they who perpetuated the rumour in the first place. Naturally, we disembark with both curiosity and trepidation. According to some, we are moving to Senegal at the worst time of the year.
It is still dark when we land, the air damp and hot at this early hour, portending a scorcher of a day. But for the moment, as we drive from Dakar towards the coast, there is a breeze that brings familiar odors through the window--bread baking, spices, car emissions, burning trash--which all combine to signal that powerful olfactory recognition of a place and a people I know well. I breathe in the acrid smells willingly as the morning sounds of a city coming to life join in and the light begins to peak on the horizon. As we drive from crowded Dakar along the coast towards La Somone, we pass workers hanging from overflowing communal buses, reaching down to take bread from the children who sell it along the roads. As the sun comes up, I hardly recognize the Senegal that I left behind less than three months ago. I was introduced to this country as an arid landscape, charred brown and void of vegetation, where only the hardiest of weeds dared make an attempt at survival. However, what I see now resembles a lush tropical island--the result of constant, torrential (and nourishing) rain. We pass tall, bright green palm trees and an acre or so of the most beautiful flowering ground cover--large frangipane-like leaves with delicate fuscia petals. “What is that incredible flower?” I ask Zorro, our friend/brother/assistant (who jumped up and down when he saw us at the airport, knocking over our baggage to get to us.) “It’s just a weed,” he says dismissively.
Locals on the side of the road are collecting the abundance of mangoes that have fallen from their overloaded trees. We stop to buy some (twelve for the equivalent of two dollars) and marvel at their size. Their mass is matched only by their luscious odor, a sweetness that cannot be contained and oozes from it’s shell, like the sweat that begins to bead up at my hairline. Even the ocean seems transformed, turned bright blue by the welcome overflow of it’s water table, it’s tides churning up waves quickly and confidently. Everything, it seems to me, has come alive. It is a bright and beautiful day, our first day in Senegal.
We stop first at the project site, a brave decision on Richard’s part, as we have learned that the rain has done extensive damage to one part of the earth house. When we pull up, our faces fall. The same storms that have aided such beautiful growth have ravished the house. One section, the pillar that holds up the majority of weight for the outside corridor, has literally melted to half it’s original girth. (Unbeknowst to us at this time, it will fall in two days, taking with it half the domed ceiling.) Was nature really capable of vandalizing our house this way? I can only tell you that what I saw resembled a boxer after eight rounds. Huge areas of missing plaster exposed the bare, bruised earth walls and thick layers of mud spread down from the roofs, staining the pristine white lime a muddy, frothy pink--the color blood turns under a running faucet. In painful contrast to the ruin we found were the seedlings we had planted in the courtyard. They had flowered and proudly showed off their flourishing. They had clearly taken round one. And if we didn’t act quickly, we would lose the fight altogether.
It took Richard, who is more resilient than I, only a few hours to turn what I viewed as a tragedy into a potential positive. I thought of our dwindled budget and wondered how we would possibly finance what needed to be fixed. I saw this situation as an impossible and cruel failure. He saw it as a learning experience. We had been convinced by a local mason to construct the pillars from earth bricks rather than using the rammed earth we used for the walls. This turned out to be a huge mistake, as these walls had remained completely intact and solid. No erosion was visible. Richard came up with a plan. This setback--four months of reparations--would actually speed our original goal of training the locals to build with earth. They will help us repair the house while we train them and then, borrowing from the Habitat for Humanity model, we will help each of them build their own earth houses. It may take several years, but it is the sole solution both from a practical and financial standpoint. For now, all we can do is protect the house from what remains of the rainy season, and begin rebuilding again mid-September. We have a few weeks to endure the storms. How bad could they be?
After we left the site, we headed to the hotel where we will stay for the next several months, a small, no-nonsense “campement” on the beach in La Somone. We arrived to find 30 or so young Senegalese who had taken over the hotel for a day and night of fun on the beach, a last bash before the month-long austerity of Ramadan begins. This is typical practice for the youth from Dakar to pool their money and escape the city fumes for the relief of the ocean. They had brought everything necessary--music, food, lights, bathing suits and were setting up a rather impressive stage for fun. At that moment, it felt like an annoyance to me. I needed to side-step their smiling faces and swaying bodies. They contrasted too strongly with my own mood, heavy with uncertainty and fatigue. I dropped Richard off at the earth house with tarps that we had bought at Home Depot and travelled with, not knowing that the majority of damage had already taken place. We had asked a friend to take care of our cat while we returned to the states and the kids were anxious to pick him up--the perfect excuse to stay away from the hotel. After we profusely thanked “popcorn’s” host, we headed to the car under darkening skies. Just as I turned off the main road towards the brush land to pick up Richard, the skies opened and a rain like none I’ve ever seen began to fall in heavy sheets. I turned on the windshield wipers only to have the rising wind rip them promptly from the car. The rain seemed to bring with it an extraordinary heat that fogged the interior windows, but we were far enough onto the dirt road that stopping would surely mean the car would get stuck. Puddles were quickly forming and the rain beat so hard I could no longer see. I grabbed a baseball hat which Zorro had left on the front seat and rolled down the window. With my head outside the driver’s seat window, I searched for the turnoff toward the house, but couldn’t find it. Mistaking other dwellings in the distance for our house, I made several false turns while the kids persistently asked why I was driving all over the place and the cat protested loudly at the rain coming in the back seat. I finally spotted the house and turned onto what I thought was a cleared path.
With the house in plain site, I slowly advanced, proud that I had managed to navigate the car in the storm. Richard came out and waved his arms frantically at me, sharing my relief that I had made it. As the rear wheels spun and protested, I realized it was a warning wave, as in “stop, you’re about to hit . . . a mud trench.” I was stuck, 50 feet from the house, in a ditch, with the rain pounding down and covering the rear left tire like an elephant in quicksand. After many attempts at digging the mud away from the tire, several locals passing by tried to help us. It was a valiant effort, but it was clear that the car was going nowhere on this particular night. We called Zorro who said he would try to pick us up in a taxi if he could find one willing to risk it. Then the battery died on the cellphone. As they were leaving, one of the Senegalese who tried to help us said, “Today is today. Tomorrow is tomorrow.” All we could do was wait. And wait. And wait. It was now 9:00 pm and Sunny and Jamie’s dwindling lack of patience and increasing hunger told us we should begin to walk the two miles back to town . . . with a bag of groceries and a mad cat in the pouring rain.
I have to say that it’s times like these when children really shine and show us that their means of perception and tolerance are far superior to ours. Knowing that Popcorn would not appreciate the pelting rain and try to run for it, I emptied the contents of my purse, a wooden handled clutch, and shoved him in, receiving several retaliatory scratches in the process. We walked, heads down against the diagonal rain, in the pitch dark towards town, Richard leading the way, gingerly guiding the kids around puddles and thickets with each hand. I followed behind with the bag of groceries in one arm and the cat-purse in a death grip in the other. I knew I had to get that cat back to the house safely if my kids were ever going to speak to me again. Proceeding through the mud, flipflops were lost, clothes got caked and a cat, wishing he had stayed with his interim keeper, got his head repeatedly shoved back into a space half his size. But all the while, the kids took this as an awesome adventure, hearing the loud croak of a giant African bullfrog for the first time, jumping through vast and deep rain puddles freely, trusting that Richard (Captain Africa) knew the way back. All I could think of was the bottle of wine in the bag I was carrying, at that point at least as precious as the cat in the other arm. As the muscles in both triceps began to scream with fatigue, I weighed the consequences of letting either one drop. They were equally unthinkable so I renewed my resolve to continue.
When we finally made it back to the hotel, exhausted and soaking wet, the party was going full force and loud music greeted us at the door. Several young men beckoned us to dance and a beautiful girl brought us rice pudding on a tray. I shook my head no, but she insisted on sharing, which she did with a smile. I suppose she saw in our bedraggled faces that this day had not been kind to us. “Kai lek” she said. “Come, eat.” I delivered the cat to his new home, poured myself a large glass of red wine and returned to taste what would be my dinner. The sweet creamy rice felt comforting and tasted of childhood simplicity. As we settled in, the music finally reached my ears with it’s authenticity and it no longer sounded outside the realm of our day. I thought of our house, of how we would bring it back to life. For now, I would have to let go of the questions, of the whys and hows. We had survived this day, and I suppose our new friend was right. Tomorrow is tomorrow.