Total Pageviews

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Song of Our Losses

I said goodbye to the earth house today. I wasn’t planning a farewell, just a short visit to assess the damage after a series of particularly violent storms. Just as quickly as Richard patched what the rain took away, another storm would beat against the walls, tearing down his work. We layed awake at night in our hotel, listening to the rain fall, trying hard to escape the vivid images of tumbling earth. Each loud crack of lightening represented further leaks in the walls, widening fissures in our hope. Unable to muster the courage to face further ruin, it had been over a week since Richard or I had driven to our land. When I arrived, the fence, woven of thin strips of wood, had been blown to the ground by the wind. I had to sidestep large, deep craters filled with water to get a good look. As I took in and made a survey of the sweeping damage, I realized it would only take one more hard rain before the few remaining walls joined the fallen sections melting away on the ground. An exquisite, small, black bird with a red breast sat not far from me, my only company, singing beautifully. I tried to shoo him away, but he was steadfast and stubborn, insistent in his dissonant song, content to bathe in a rain-filled hollow of rubble.

We learned recently that this particular rainy season has been the worst in fifteen years, causing major flooding in several areas including the city of Dakar, where children have drowned, factories have collapsed, and septic tanks have overflown into the streets. You won’t read about this in any newspaper, but I witnessed the effects firsthand earlier this week on a day trip there. It took nearly two and a half hours to reach the inner city due to road reconstruction (a trip which normally takes an hour). As we rounded a corner at the edge of the city, I saw a large open area where several small buildings had collapsed, now filled with small, colorful pup-tents. Laundry lines had been strung across and tacked to non-functioning electrical poles in neat rows, holding up the newly washed clothes of who knows how many. A tin roof had been erected over a common outdoor kitchen where women crouched over small gas tanks, humming (or praying, I wasn’t sure), working together to feed numerous neighbors. These were people recently made homeless by the storms, people who had gathered their resources together and organized a small village. I am often amazed at how the Seneglese have the ability to make their misfortunes a communal concern, coming together quickly and efficiently to, if not solve their problems, at least adapt to them as a shared burden. If many hands make light work, perhaps many hearts can hold hardships at bay. I often wonder if other African nations share this ability, if perhaps they have evolved towards the survival of the masses over survival of the individual. When things beyond their control overtake them, they simply move on, together. It felt strange, after dodging flooded roads and crumbled cement, to arrive at the “centre ville” of Dakar with its’ pristine palace walls drenched in bougainvillea, it’s motionless guards dressed in what looked like red velvet and white plumed hats (in this heat!). Downtown Dakar, with it’s foreign embassies and fashion shops, patisseries and French restaurants could have been any large city, and like any large city, the problems pool to the outskirts.

While we’ve watched the house slowly slip away, our relationship with Zorro, our only Senegalese friend, has paralleled the demise. Many expats have warned us not to trust the Senegalese, have stated in no uncertain terms that they will steal, lie, cheat and betray you the moment you turn your back. What an awful thing to tell a newcomer, what a sad prediction to fathom, what a vast generalization to make about a people so prone to generosity. The intricacies of this culture are still too new for me to condemn any new acquaintance and so I proceed with each individual, trusting until I have reason not to. In my short experience here, I have learned that what the expat “toubabs” say is not entirely untrue. However, they fail to understand their part, yes, their contribution to this relationship with the locals. If I were to voice this, these same said foreigners would be appalled, but let’s face it, there are always two sides to every story. The Senegalese are used to a history of transient relationships with foreigners. We come, we buy up their land, use their labor to build our homes, hire them for our ventures, promise lasting devotion and a steady stream of income. . . and inevitably leave. Sometimes, we leave for only a season, sometimes for years, sometimes never to return. And while we are gone, there are mouths to feed, children to cloth, and work to be found, money to be made, however it can, in order for them to survive. And hopefully, if they are lucky, we will come back or at least be replaced by a new wave of transient relationships. I have come to understand that the Senegalese live very much in the moment, day to day, week to week. Consequences are hardly a consideration (nor should they be?) when your children have nothing to eat. Arrogantly, I assumed we were immune to these types of relational faults. One French person, when he saw that Zorro was our constant companion, had the nerve to tell me, “just wait, he’ll betray you too.” My solitary thought at the time was . . . never. I was wrong.

I sensed it quickly after our return from the states, perhaps even at the airport. As we came through the glass security doors which separated us from our old life, he ran to us, practically knocked us over to take us into his arms and then just as quickly retreated into the more practical task of piling our bags onto a cart and pushing them towards the car. He was distant, reserved, unfamiliar. Or maybe I knew it even while we were packing up our belongings in Savannah but couldn’t face what it would mean to our relationship or to our future here in Senegal. The tone of his sporadic phone calls alternated between exuberant pleas for us to return to all the possibilities awaiting us (which he elaborately embellished) and accounts of how difficult life had been since we left. It was as if he was desperate without us and placed his every hope of recovery on our return, but knew that we would discover that he had done something in our absence that could hurt us. When we got back, he would promise to come help us, but would never come, never call. Then, unannounced, he would show up the next day with a meal that his wife, Ami, had made for us. He never stayed for long.

About two weeks after we returned, Richard tried to talk to him, but he refused. Thinking that my relationship with Zorro was somehow particular, Richard suggested that I might have more success. As I sat with my Senegalese friend in a dark room (the electricity had gone out), I asked him to talk, told him that we loved him. Perhaps because I couldn’t see his eyes, he felt safe. Like a small child, he laid in my arms and cried, relieved and anguished tears. All he could say was, “I just wanted you all to come back and now I’m afraid you’ll leave. I’ll talk when Ramadan is over. Then you will know.” But don’t we already? I realized he indeed had a confession to make, but needed first to ask forgiveness from his god, which seemed justified to me in that moment in the dark.

This afternoon, as I sat on the ground in front of a pile of broken walls, I let myself understand that Zorro had abandoned our house, had downplayed the damages prior to our return, fabricated a story about a musician who wanted to film his new video within our walls. He had used our car as a taxi, driven strangers thousands of miles to put food on his table and never once thought of the consequences. But had we thought of the consequences of leaving? And still, he wanted to ensure that we would come back, that things would be the same. But they aren’t, nothing is. He is still a part of our lives, knowing that he has proved both sides of the equation right. Sure enough, he did all those things the expat said he would. Sure enough, he still loves us. And so we rename this loss, molding a different form out of the odd remaining pieces.

I came to the earth house, alone, for the first time today. Each time we’ve come to face the truth here, I’ve held back my shock, my regrets, my fears and yes, even my embarrassment, all for Richard’s sake. How could I break down in the face of his courage, of his total conviction that he can rebuild, create an even better house? “At least I did it”, he said once. “ At least it existed.” But now, because I am alone, because I don’t have to be brave for anyone, I cry, relieved and anguished tears. I find it interesting that the joyous events in our lives ask to stand alone, to be revelled in and savored all on their own like an only child, while the losses prefer to keep each other company,. At our weakest moments, they call to each other to come forth and vie for our grief. “Hey, you think this is bad,” they say, “remember me? I nearly ripped your heart out.” As I sat there, finally free to cry for the ruin of our house, I thought also of how Zorro was slipping away from us, receding daily like these walls, followed closely by the pain of strained or lost relations, recent and past. I allowed my father’s long suffering from cancer to come forward (that most stubborn and persistent loss) and was quickly joined by Leah, the freshest of my losses, Leah, barely scabbed over, stolen in one short night. There were more that followed and I gave them each their turn, grieved anew for my collective absences until I was brought back to these crumbling walls and myself sitting on the damp ground. Some voice in me, the one that emerges when the calm catharsis sets in, borrowed from Richard, “at least they existed. At least they mattered.” Yes.

When I lay awake at night and think about how we will emerge from our setbacks here, I don’t envision a phoenix miraculously rising from the ashes. I know better. But maybe if we are lucky, there will be a smaller bird (or two, or four), not unlike the deep, red breasted one I saw today, one who won’t alight too quickly, one who can salvage the smallest of threads, steal a souvenir. One who can take it’s daily comings and turn them into something of a song.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Beauty of the Underbelly

A word of caution: this entry is fairly graphic and shows the raw side of Africa. If you have children who are prone to looking over your shoulder or if you like to share my writing with them, you may want to keep this one to yourself . . . or not, depending on your perspective.

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 initiation towards 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.