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.