Dancing on one leg: The gift of a year in Dakar

* Edited version published on A Life Overseas


Soo demee dëkk fekk ñépp di fecce benn tànk defal na ñoom.
If you go to a village where everyone dances on one leg, you should do the same.  (Wolof Proverb)

Imagine this: It’s mid-afternoon. The sun is blistering, high in the sky, a hole punched through the orange haze of dust and diesel fumes and salty air that has swallowed up the city. The humidity hangs on you like a wet blanket; heavy and oppressive.

You navigate your truck through the crowded city roads like a pro now, knowing where all the shortcuts are…and where all the potholes are. You inch along in the crowded sea of vehicles jockeying for position as they dodge horse carts, pedestrians, herds of sheep and goats and cows.

Horns blare. Everyone’s honking at something, but you can never be sure exactly who or what is the subject of the honking. You join in and beep at a taxi in front of you who is straddling two lanes.

It’s hot. You’re tired. By all means, the traffic should be making you crabby, because you’re already 20 minutes late and it’s not looking like you’re going to be arriving at your destination any time soon.

But you’re not crabby. You’re not stressed. You accept the fact that you’ll get there when you get there, and when that taxi finally chooses a lane and cuts in front of you and nearly runs you off the road, it’s ok. Because he sticks his hand out the window and gives you a “thumbs-up” to say, “Thanks, buddy.” And there’s something about that thumbs-up that takes away your urge to lay on your horn and share another universal hand signal. Instead you smile and chuckle and shake your head. You think about trying the thumbs-up the next time you return to the States and wonder how that will go over.

And this is how you know that finally, you are easing into the rhythm of life here, that all those things that seemed so strange and foreign and just plain wrong have become your new normal.

Now, when you greet someone on the street on your daily walk to buy bread, you don’t look at your watch and wish you could hurry up and move along. You take your time. You take off your sunglasses so people can see your eyes. And you begin:

— Peace be with you.
— Peace be with you, too.
— How are you?
— I’m at peace.
— And your family?
— My family is at peace.
— And your children?
— Yes, the children are well.
— And the heat?
— Yes, it’s very hot today.
— Your work, it’s going well?
— Yes, my work is going well.
— And you are in good health?
— Yes, thank you, my health is good.
— So, how are you? 

And you repeat this greeting, sometimes two or three times, and you never rush it because you want to convey that your friend is that much more important than your errand.

You’ve stopped making To-Do lists, because you know that life here is completely unpredictable and you will likely only complete one thing on your list on any given day. You’ve learned that even the best, most organized plan of action can be thwarted by an inconvenient power outage or a bright blue and yellow car rapide stalled out in the middle of a highway.

And yet you also know that help is only a moment away, no matter where you are, when the unexpected happens. You know this from personal experience, from the time you decided to drive your truck on the beach only to find out a few minutes later that your four-wheel-drive wasn’t working. And when you panicked just a little because the tide was coming in and you were buried in the sand past your axles, 20 young men appeared out of nowhere with a wooden board to help dig you out. When you’re back on solid ground a few minutes later, you give one of the guys $10 to share among the group and remind yourself that it was cheaper and faster than calling a tow truck.

When someone invites you to take a trip to the interior of the country to help out a village that was recently ravaged by fire, you’re not really surprised when you leave four hours late. And when, instead of the short drive straight east that you anticipated, you wind up hours later in a remote village on the southern edge of Senegal a few miles from the border of Gambia, you roll with it. You work into the wee hours of the night setting up tents, with only the lights from the cars to guide you. And on your way home, at 3 a.m., you finally stop for dinner at a dibiterie in the middle of nowhere, where a giant bowl of meat is brought out. You have no idea what you’re eating. You think about things like giardia, salmonella, e. coli. But you shrug your shoulders and dig in, knowing that to refuse would be rude and ungrateful, hoping that your stomach has built up enough of an immunity to local bacteria to keep you in the clear. At least until you get home to your own toilet.

Now when it comes to food, you know all the local dishes — yassa poulet, mafé, ceebu jenn —and you have a regular favorite. You don’t break into a sweat anymore when you are seated with a group of people around a large bowl heaped with rice, carrots, onions, turnips, and a whole fish on top — scales, eyeballs, fins, and all. And it doesn’t bother you when everyone digs in with their hands (right hands, of course: left hands are dirty no matter how many times they’ve been washed), although you are grateful when a spoon is offered because you haven’t quite mastered the technique of rolling rice, fish and vegetables into an edible ball with one hand.

You’re wearing things you’d never get away with in the States…funky prints, hand-tailored embroidered shirts, chunky wooden jewelry. You’ve mastered the art of the fuggi jaay — which literally means to shake something out (fuggi) and then to sell it (jaay). At first you were intimidated by the maze of tents that makes up the traveling clothing market where vendors dump huge bundles of Salvation Army castoffs from the U.S., but now you know exactly how to sort through the piles of clothes, how much things should cost, how to score a mint-condition Gap t-shirt or practically new pair of Sketchers.

You no longer show up at the store or the bank between 1 and 3 p.m. and groan in frustration when you find everything locked up tight behind a metal security gate, because you no longer go out to any stores between 1 and 3 p.m. That’s prayer time, mosque time, break time. The city closes its doors and everyone takes a break. Including you.

And when you hear the echo of the local mosque’s prayers, five times a day, you no longer ignore them or tune them out like white noise in the background of your daily life . You watch as young men and old men bend over their prayer mats, and you take a moment to whisper prayers of your own.

You barely notice anymore the trash that piles up along the side of the road, on the beach, in empty lots or against the wall of your house. And when you do, you don’t think about how careless people are, but you think that if you had to support your family of six on $85 per month, where your trash went would probably not be very high up on your priority list. You recognize the problem for what it is: a symptom of the poverty that seeps into every little corner of life here in Dakar.

And this is maybe the thing that you will never get used to, the thing that will never be normal to you: the dirty, outstretched hands of talibé boys forced to beg for sugar cubes and coins for their teachers, the exhausted mothers with babies tied to their backs pleading for bread or milk.

Can you feel it? Can you feel the prick in your heart every time you hold your palms open to show that you have nothing to give? Can you feel the weight of the poverty and the emptiness of religion?

And in the middle of that, can you hear the laughter, the exuberant greetings, the rhythmic drumming of the djembé players? Can you smell the fresh fish being cooked over an open fire, the hot bread just out of the brick oven at the bakery? Can you see the wide smiles, the dancing women with their high-pitched trilling voices, the children giggling at you from behind their mother’s skirts?

Because for every difficulty here, for every impossibility, for every little thing that makes you raise your eyebrows and ask Why?, there is something else that makes you smile at its beauty, wonder at its simplicity. There is a rawness, an openness, the simple humanity of needing one another.

And because you have lived and breathed these things, because you have embraced them and come face-to-face with your own prejudices and weaknesses and inadequacies, you are forever changed.

I am forever changed.

This is the gift of a year in Dakar.




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