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Sunday, April 15, 2012

PASSAGE TO AFRICA Chapter 13: Prisoner of Hospitality

Mykel's Africa Blog
Chapter 13: Killing Me Softly

I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. --Henry David Thoreau

I'm dying here... a prisoner... trapped in a tiny room. Unable to go out... to go for a walk... without accompaniment. Force fed like a frois gras goose. Horrible headache from caffeine/coffee withdrawl. Nothing but me, the flies and spider solitaire. I'm gonna die.

I've been out of my room for a total of one hour today. I can't go into the living room. If I do, who's ever there will ask, “Tu as faim?”

No matter what the answer, they will require me to sit down while someone prepares fish and rice (or sometimes rice and fish)... just for me. Anytime is eat time, and I can't say no.

I'm like a convict, allowed his daily walk in the sun. During that time today, I sat on a pile of bricks (arranged eerily like Stonehenge) and wrote postcards. Ouseman's sister sat not so discreetly, on another pile of bricks, keeping an eye on me. Little kids in the neighborhood came over to me... at first to stare, then to shake hands. I was the first whiteguy they had ever seen in person.

A lowlight was when a couple of kids, one of each gender, maybe six or seven years old, were carrying a baby... just about a year old. They shook hands with me, and then brought the baby close. S/he burst into tears... screams of fear... the little ones laughed... then brought the baby close again... it screamed and cried... the kids were delighted... funny as hell... like seeing a cat chase a laser light... third time, the baby screams louder... hahahahaha... what a fun game. But, as kids do, they soon got tired of it.

Right now, I have plenty of time to write, but my headache makes it difficult to concentrate. I play a lot of spider solitaire.

Let see, where was I last time... oh yeah, my second day in the Dakar “ghetto.” 5:30 AM awakened by the call to prayer and the roosters and sheep in the back yard. Fall asleep again, then up at 9:30AM. Ouseman and his brother are still sleeping. I think they're sleeping together in the same bed... while I occupy Ouseman's room. Guest priveledge. The maid is preparing fish and rice on what looks like a giant camping stove in the kitchen.

Tu as faim?” she asks

[Aside: Senegal is the only country I've been in where the extremely poor have maids. I don't get how it works... or how they pay her... maybe just free food, she eats with us every meal. She's beautiful, originally from Gambia, they tell me. She has a kind of haughty attitude, but it looks like she's play-acting. When I try to say something in Wolof, it makes her laugh. Unfortunately, she won't let me take her picture.]

Deedeet (no)” she answers when I raise the camera.

She laughs and motions for me to sit down. She will prepare coffee and breakfast. Though from Gambia, she doesn't speak... (or like to speak, I can't tell which) English-- or French. I watch her... the way her body forms a perfect S when she stands... the way her t-shirt clings to the right spots... the way she bends to sweep the sand from the floor... not a crouch, not a kneel... but a bend... like a dancer or an athlete touching her toes in a stretch... She must see the lustful look in my eyes, because she does one of those (universal?) girl pouts... then laughs.

Cafè?” she asks.

Wow!” I answer. (That's an easy one. Wow! in Wolof means yes.) I need the caffeine fix. Coffee withdrawal is the worst. Horrible headache... and coffee gives a big boost to internal evacuation. A current concern. For me, the hardest thing about keeping the Yom Kippur fast is going without coffee. Rabbi Lewis suggested half a cup as my last drink before the fast.

The maid motions for me to sit down. She boils some water... brings me some brown liquid... and some rice and fish. That's when I learn that Cafè in Senegalese culture means any hot drink made with water. It does not mean coffee.

After breakfast, the family slowly wakes up, greets me... asks me if a slept well.. if I ate... if the food was good... Same questions from each family member. If I hesitate to say I slept well... or wait a second to say the food was delicious... if I should yawn! Oy!

Oh, tu es fatige. Je suis desole,” or “Tu n'aimes pas la nourriture.” It's a Jewish mother on steroids... but from EVERY member of the family.”

The rest of the family gets up at about 11AM. Mama says bonjour and asks me if I slept well.

Wow!” I answer quickly.

Gradually the room fills. The maid unrolls a straw mat on the floor. On the mat is a white table cloth. Around the mat sits everyone. There are two stools, one for me-- bien sûr-- and one for Ouseman. Then out comes a giant plate of rice and fish. It's time for breakfast... again.

The spoons are for Dad, Ouseman, and me (bien sûr). Mom and sis eat with their hands.

After the after-breakfast, we retire to take a post-meal nap. The maid continues her work: sweeping sand from the floor, feeding the animals in the backyard, cleaning the toilets, and making charcoal. The latter is an interesting task where wood is charred over a kerosene flame, then set aside to be used in later grilling. It fills the house with the delightful smell of an outdoor barbecue.

I awaken from my nap and get up to go to the bathroom. The maid speaks to me in Wolof. I guess she's asking Tu as bien dormi?

Wow!” I answer.

She says something else, which I'm sure means Tu as faim?

Deetdeet.” I answer, like it'll make any difference. I return from the bathroom, down and she makes me lunch... probably pre-lunch... rice and fish. The drink, this time, is a cold hibiscus tea, made with a lot of sugar. (There is a lot of sugar in EVERYTHING here.) It's delicious. The rice and fish, though excellent, isn't quite as good as it was this morning, which was itself, not quite as good as the rice and fish I had last night.

Lecker!” says the maid even though I've had my fill.

Lecker means eat! in Wolof. It's easy to remember, because lecker in German means delicious!

In order to get out of the house... and hopefully avoid mid-lunch, which I guess occurs between pre-lunch and post-lunch... I change my house sandals for my usual army boots. I leave through the front door, take a picture of the number plate so I can remember or inquire about it, and head down the sandy road in front of the house. I figure if I stay on the same road, I can't get lost.

It's a long road, and fun to trudge through the sand and look at the people. The streets are starkly beautiful... almost like in a world picture book.
People in beautiful clothes, balancing who-knows-what on their heads, barefoot or sandled in the sand. I'm the only white guy... just the way I like it... a mini-celebrity. Everyone wants to say hello. Wave... the children want to shake my hand... touch it... to see if it's real... if it wont rub off and show the real skin beneath. I'm having a ball.

The street ends, but I'm enjoying my walk so much I continue. A left turn... easy enough to retrace. Here there are more markets, more shops, more signs of town-dom.

Here's hair dresser. (I don't know why... in a country where most women keep their head covered. )

Here's a clothing shop.. an entrepreneurship... run by a young guy and his wife (sister?). They wave me into the shop. Don't try to sell me a thing. Just chat.... where you from?... do you like Senegal?... What do you think of our town?... The woman is shy about being photographed, but the guy is up for it, though he doesn't look too happy in the picture.

I walk onwards, picking out a point in the distance to turn around and go back, but finding something interesting at each point, and going further.

My cellphone rings.


Mykel? Je suis la sœur de Ouseman. Où ês tu?”

Je marche dans les rues de village,” I answer. “Je vais retourner dans les 15 ou 20 minutes.”

Okay, d'accord, Nous attendons pour tu.” she says.

A bientôt,” I say, and hang up.

Reluctantly I turn around and head back. Geez, I walked further than I thought I did. In about 10 minutes, I reach the turn in the road. In about 11 minutes, the phone rings again.

Mykel? C'est moi,” it's Ouseman's sister. “ Où ês tu?”

Je suis dans la rue,” I say. “5 minutes.”

D'accord, nous attendons pour tu.” she says.

I continue my walk. In six minute the phone rings again.

Mykel, tu es perdu?”

Non, je suis ici,” I say. “Je arrive tout de suite.”

D'accord, nous attendons pour tu.” she says.

Ahead, in the distance, I see Ouseman's brother, N'dari, scouting the horizon. I wave to him. He waves back. Even at this distance, I can see his chest heave a sigh of relief. When I reach him, he gives me a big hug.

Mykel, Mykel, where you go?” he asks, struggling with English.

Je marche dans la ville,” I say. “J'aime voir le terre et rencontrer les gens dans la rue.”

He shepherds me into the house, shouting something in wolof which must mean I've got him! He's safe. Everyone is sitting around, relieved looks on their faces. It seems to me that Ouseman has a touch of guilt in his expression. After all he's the one who let me out of his sight.

Bien,” says mom, gesturing to the fish and rice on the floormat, “lecker!”

This is the 13th entry of my travel blog for this trip. (This entry started on Friday the 13th ) Here are the past entries:

Episode 1 here (Before leaving New York 1)

Episode 2 here (Before leaving New York 2)

Episode 3 here (Before leaving New York 3)

Episode 4 here. (Before leaving New York 4)

Episode 5 here (New York to Paris)

Episode 6 here (Strassbourg Party Time)

Episode 7 here (Ryan Air)

Episode 8 here (Paris)

Episode 9 here (Death in Tangier)

Episode 10 here (Resurrection in Tangier)

Episode 11 here (Monkey Business in Gibraltar)

Episode 12 here (Entering Senegal from the rear)

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