On a recent Friday morning, I walked along the dirt path towards the village to buy tapalapa, the local bread which my friend Abdou bakes in a wood-burning oven at his house and transports to his small shop by horse and cart every morning. It was just before 8 am and the Senegalese students were lingering outside the village high school talking, laughing, sharing clove-infused coffee and bread filled with spiced lentils. The girls sat primly in a row on the wall surrounding the dilapidated buildings, their heads veiled despite the early-morning heat, their skirted legs dangling, heals absent-mindedly nicking away at the cement. The boys jostled each other, or danced, or whispered and scuffled the pebbles on the ground, their text-books forgotten in the dust. Some of them smiled but just as quickly forgot I was there. They are used to me by now. I've walked past this school a hundred times and always noticed the students, greeted them, but on this particular morning, I really saw them. And they seemed like every other teenage kid, all over the world, trying to get by, waiting for life to happen. They seemed like me, at that age.
Thousands of miles away, in Durham, North Carolina, close friends, acquaintances and people I hardly knew were starting to gather, little by little, for our 25th college reunion. I imagined what it would be like to set foot on campus and see all those young students on their way to somewhere, looking up and seeing US, name-tags dangling from our necks. Would we seem old and out of place, as I surely do to the African teenagers in my village? Did we still belong there, or would we simply be visiting a four-year-long memory that now belonged to them? I thought of what it might feel like to walk into that first reunion event and see a familiar face, the eyes first, because they don't change, and then the smile and finally the composite, older now, but still intact and full of intent. I imagined conversations, not the brief and superficial sort, but ones filled with admission and courage, humor and pathos. Would old insecurities creep back, even for an instant, or have they been quieted by the more substantial hurdles and triumphs of our adulthood? Marriage, children, divorce, cancer, success, floods, war, failure, loss, love, time. I suddenly wanted to be there, desperately, although it was impossible for many reasons.
Months back, when people began posting on the Duke reunion Facebook page, back when there was still the slightest possibility of going, it struck me how easy it all seemed, how so many people were taking the time and effort to be there. Thanks to a social media site originally intended for college students and someone like Hester Old Sullivan to use it to its full advantage, we had a "place" to go to check in, ask questions, get information, share anecdotes and memories months ahead of the actual event. It seemed to put everyone at ease and generate excitement. A common theme I saw over and over was "will I remember their names?"
The Senegalese, like most Africans, live in the present, very much on a day-to-day basis. Their lives are first and foremost about meeting needs. The past is not dwelt upon. Most do not know their birthday or the year they were born. Even tragedy and death, felt profoundly in the moment, are left behind quickly. Nor do they project themselves into the future, coveting the goals and commodities of tomorrow. As a result--or in spite of this, I'm not sure which--they are genuinely happy people. When you see a Senegalese person, whether you know them well or have just met them, they often say, "I remember you," which is a greeting of respect and holds several meanings: "I know who you are and how we met", and secondly "you had an impact on me". But most importantly, "I remember you" also means "I keep you in my thoughts and my heart."
Much to my dismay and the annoyance of my family, I spent reunion weekend not in Durham, NC, but in N'gaparou, West Africa, glued to Facebook, reading posts, looking at pictures, wishing I were there, thinking about how much I missed my old friends and wondering if I would have made new ones. But as I read and scanned pictures, I somehow felt a part of it, if only as a voyeur glimpsing pieces of the puzzle. And even though I only gleaned the punch lines, I knew the jokes had been good. And so I laughed, just imagining the possibilities.