When my host mother, my yaay, says the word kaay, the world stops. The rule—unwritten, but evident to all—is that addressee must drop all activities instantly and heed the call. Sometimes barked, yelled, hollered or sometimes stated it matter-of-factly, the word kaay seems to be the most powerful of all Wolof terms. Moreover, it seems as if the house was built to amplify this call—with its open courtyard and staircase, cantilevered balconies and windows, my mother’s voice somehow echoes up and down all three stories.
From her couch on the second story, she barks, Baba, kaay! and a millisecond later my 15-year-old brother, Baba is scurrying up the steps. But most mystifying is when my mother, in the kitchen, says, Ndeye, kaay, without raising her voice an inch. Certainly, I think there’s no way Ndeye heard that, and I walk to the foot of the stairs, ready to yell up—and then comes little Ndeye running. How could she have heard that, from all the way up on the second floor? I wonder. Such is the magic of my mother’s kaay.
Three of my host sisters in the kitchen: Gay (8) cleans a chicken while Neyfatou (2) and Ndèye Awa (7) look on.
ndekki: (to have) breakfast
Breakfast is always the same here: I awake in the morning to find, sitting on the table outside of my room, a tray with a thermos of boiling water, tins of powdered milk, sugar and coffee, and a mug. Besides the mug sits half a baguette, freshly bought, sliced in two and slathered in margarine. Like the rising sun, I can count on this offering for breakfast, although sometimes instead of margarine there is chocolate spread. I eat one side of the half baguette and rush off for school.
If I am here for three-and-a-half months, and I eat a quarter of a baguette every morning—that’s over 25 baguettes eaten for breakfast by the end of my stay here!
Dust and dryness is everywhere. My feet are caked with it, the fine pale brown powder settling into every line and fold. No matter how much I scrub my feet at night in the bathroom, the soles are still dark and dirty. At this point, my toes have the same color and texture of baby elephants—wrinkled and dusty and gray.
The view from the restaurant at the base of the famous Phare (Lighthouse) de Mamelles.
Lekk means to eat, but add the –al and it’s a command: Eat! I hear this often as I try to set down my spoon at the communal plate, stuffed from all the delicious rice and fish and onion gravy and spices. Lekkal! Eat! My sisters and brothers and mother look at me like I’m crazy. You, what do you think you’re doing? Why on earth are you putting down your spoon? No matter if it feels like I’ve been digging into my portion for years, no matter comatose I feel from bringing rice from plate to mouth. But I don’t resist much. I dig my spoon back into the feast, and keep going.
yoor wi: street
White buses packed to the brim with passengers, lurching to one side. Battered, dented black-and-yellow taxis honk at pedestrians on the sidewalk, wildly careening across intersections or reversing down an entire street. Car-rapides, buses painted in bright designs, zoom past, with young men hanging from the back announcing the destination to anyone in earshot. Mecs on motorcycles, clad in slick polos and gold-rimmed sunglasses veer around the traffic. A three-lane highway screeches to a halt as three large white cows meander across. Shiny black Range Rovers, the ultimate status vehicle, traverse the highways alongside ugly-faced goats. Skinny horses snort dust and pull their carts down sandy lanes, past taxicabs parked haphazardly on the sidewalk. There is a rhyme and reason to Senegalese transportation, but I haven’t figured it out quite yet.
maangiiy fii: I am doing well.
Asalaam alekum. Malaekum salaam. Na nga def? Maangiiy fii. Greetings in Senegalese follow a rhythm, said over and over so many times each day that it becomes an incantation. Naka nga def ? How do you do? Maangiiy fii. This response obviously means, I am fine. And yet, translated literally, maangiiy fii becomes I am here. Isn’t that wonderful? I am here. Everything is good. I am here, now, in this moment. Here in Dakar, Senegal. Here, talking to you, my friend.
doxantu: to take a walk
On a Saturday morning, I walk from my home in Comico Mermoz to the school in SICAP Baobab, a half-hour’s stroll down dusty, narrow streets and across two three-lane expressways. In the coolness of the early morning, before the sun starts to really burn, it’s the perfect time to notice things:
- Three large hawk-like birds inscribe endless lazy circles around the ivory pillar of the mosque’s minaret.
- A woman sets up her shop underneath the large, flat-leafed tree across from the school, gently laying silvery wet fishes in stacks on the table.
- One breezy, long street is lined with gigantic villas, their high outer walls and delicate balcony trellises trimmed with pink and purple bougainvillea. The bougainvillea cast cool shadows onto the tiled sidewalks.