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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.

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