As tensions rise in Mali, West Africa, I am recalling my trip to Africa. It was not so long ago and it was not to view wild animals in their majestic settings. No, that sort of trip would be to East Africa I suppose. The Senegal I experienced was not that sort of place. It was beautiful in a human way, a spiritual-growth sort of way–with lots of goats.
My trip to Africa began in the Brussels airport early one morning in January of 2006. I waited alone in the check-in line, surrounded by French speakers, mostly white women with children. My travel partners, volunteers with Habitat for Humanity International, were somewhere on the other side of tight security. I grew fond of stating, “I am travelling with 14 of my favorite strangers.” We had not yet met.
What are these women doing going to Senegal, I wondered. A middle-aged woman turned, as if on cue, and asked, “Allez-vous a Cloub Med?” With her accent it took a moment to translate. And then I laughed out loud, for she had asked the question that clarified all. Club Med for me? In Senegal? What a lovely, unexpected thought–but no, no, no. I must say, at that moment I found the thought quite appealing. And as I worked on our job site near Petit M’bao during the next two weeks, hauling bits of rocks in a hip-balanced basket, from a roadside pile to the excavation-for-new-homes site, I would remember that conversation and wonder what the ladies were doing that day at Club Med. Our only common ground: We were all speaking French.
Here is my version of a trip to l’Afrique:
Inside the white mini bus. Twelve seats, all facing Dakar’s cacophony of human wanderings, roadside . Lemons, oranges, bananas. Cloth dolls and fabric passport-purses balanced in flat baskets on heads of moving women swathed in vibrant prints. Upholstered sofas wrapped in plastic for outside sales. Pens of goats awaiting slaughter—Mrs. Camara’s dinner. Fathers, mothers, street-wise teens, toddlers, aunties, Moslem holy men: everyone walking their agendas with purposeful strides or saunters. The smell of burning plastic from roadside fires. We head east twenty miles to bare scrublands, untouched, no infrastructure. Baobab missing, quiet ground.
Salam Aleikum, Aleikum Salam, Nanga Def, Manga fee farek. Diouf in indigo-blue batik flowing robe greets passengers as they descend. Daily ritual politeness. We workers arrive to elevate future homeowners’ dreams and maisons.
Job site activity resumes where yesterday left off—balancing buckets of tan sand on swaying hips, carrying-close buckets of murky water, hauling small rocks in half-full buckets, slashing thorny shrubs with raw-handled machetes. Walking in sub-Saharan sand, shoes responding with delicate sucking sounds at each step. Leaving athletic-shoe prints. Light breeze blows fine sand in faces, hair and hats. Piling coarse gravel, water , powdered Portland cement on ground, mixing roughly with shovel. Packing semi-thickened concrete to forms, producing bricks that sun dries in two days. Building, one hand-hewn brick by brick. Mortar and muscle bind all.
Lunch break at pink pre-school. Plates of millet, spicy red-sauce, potatoes, eggplant, baobab fruit, and yams piled high. We sit cross-legged on the plaid mat-covered floor. Lucky blue fish, with glassy eyes bulging, atop platters today in the goat, chicken, grilled fish rotation. Spoons for six spaced around each plate . Mini divisions demarked, no germs transferred. Satisfying hunger with no alternatives day after day. Heather eats granola bars. Bold geometric-print, green-brown-yellow, cotton-skirted cooks watch as if tested. Cooks’ helpers eat leftovers.
Work resumes. Roger’s boom-box, balanced on partially constructed window ledge, plays Carly Simon. Verner waltzes Tara on future kitchen floor. Stephanie keeps time with mortar and trowel, chinking. Pamela sings, “You’re So Vain” lyrics, on beat and pitch. Olivia cries, homesick for love. Etienne, wearing a Jesus Loves You smiley-face T-shirt, hauls rocks while dancing and imagining Olivia in his arms. Randy judges architectural strength. Merelee lusts for Paul. Becky rakes imported dirt in Zen-like patterns. Tara trades English words for Woolof with Christian.
Diop, the head mason, disbelieves our talents. Wall collapses. Begin again, he motions, hands choppy, angry. Only men are allowed near the wall as gender is specific to duties, success or failure, for “Yassir” Diop, with red-and-white-checked Keffiyea wrapped loosely around neck. Later, upon a gift of chocolate from Ann, he grabs her crotch in a lightning-strike move. She recoils, surprised. Cultural misunderstanding line has been crossed.
Another work-day concluded. Gathering backpacks, hats, water bottles , levels, gloves , shovels, picks, trowels, plumb lines, buckets-dust laden. Wipe sweat-hardened faces of dirt with blue bandanas. Board bus one by one. Everyone shifts seats except Heather— too large for back bench so permanently assigned to front. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, hip against hip, elbow to chest, legs frozen. Mousa-the-driver begins reverse journey homeward to Guest House, des Amis de nature. Language switches to English from French. Riders dream of mini-market delicacies forthcoming. Numbers drawn for showers. Tired ones sleep, exhausted, heads against window. Traffic snarls. Smell of diesel, intoxicating. Smell of garbage burning, little piles roadside.
Mini market at last. Foreign migrant workers descend, one by one, dirty, exhausted, drained by sun, wind, dirt. Swarm store, counting foreign currency, placing Heineken beer, Dannon yogurt, chocolate Mars bars, peanuts-in-the-shell, corn flakes, whole milk, French Camembert, LU cookies, one-drink-sized Stoli on counter. Clerk speaks Woolof. Language barrier solved by signing, universal understanding. Migrants with cash. Nostalgic purchases remind of home and comfort and loved ones.
Hot showers, by the numbers. Evening meal of rice, sauce, fish, potatoes, garlic green beans, bottled water. Served by Angelique—tall, thin, hoop-earring adorned, African queen. Men notice twice.
Afterwards walk down dark, red-dirt path to internet café, shoulder to shoulder. Sixteen computers, foreign keyboards, pay by minute, heat oppressive, mosquitoes buzzing, connecting to home. Sending images families do not recognize, blogging to explain. Walk home in darkness except quarter moon shines. Sleep inside mosquito nets, feet tucked tight, hands under floral pillows, long sleeves covering. Buzzing disturbs but cannot enter protective womb. Rhythmic drums beat in distance. Sound seeps through closed windows from indiscernible location. Dreams of loved ones, seven time zones away.
Dawn arrives to songbirds announcements. Breakfast: bread, tea, butter, jam. Nanga def, Manga fee farek. We gather munitions, board white mini-bus, occupants rotate positions except Heather. Pass humanity on foot, walking. Other painted, graphic, mini-busses stuffed, men dangerously partially suspended into roadway, taxis honking. Goats in road, cattle in road, walkers in road, cars in road. Humanity, angling west towards Atlantic-blue sea. Breeze. Freedom.
International migrants return to job site, resume positions, whistle sixties rock and roll melodies, lacking words. Dreams of home in Asia, North America, Europe—three continents, five countries away. Together building for humanity, one house at a time. Mr. Camara smiles.
Category: Indie It Travel