Water in Senegal

KOLDA, SENEGAL – I am sitting under a baobab tree scribbling my jumbled thoughts on a sticky, ripped sheet of notebook paper and fanning the coals of a small fire under a cheaply-made tin teapot. The tea’s bubbling with the sweet, thick, highly-caffeinated, syrupy “ataya” that I’ve become accustomed to drinking during the late afternoon. I’m in the remote Kolda region of central Senegal. To be perfectly honest, I’m still somewhat incredulous that I landed in West Africa for the summer with 11 other high-schoolers and three former Peace Corps volunteers who are leading our group in this journey throughout Senegal, introducing us to its people, history, culture, music, language, traditions, and issues in development and education. I am even more bewildered now to find myself the only foreigner here in Sara Souma, an intimate agrarian village of fewer than one hundred where I am living with a family for eight days. My fellow travelers are scattered throughout the region, each assigned to a different family in a different village; the closest is a thirty-minute walk from me. Today is day five of our eight-day homestay. By now all feelings of initial shock have dissipated and I’m settling into the rhythmic, slow pace of life, happy to slow down after weeks of face-paced travel. My Senegalese mother, Fatmata, is very shy and works endlessly from 6 in the morning until 10 in the evening farming, caring for her children, and preparing meals for the family, which includes her husband, mother-in-law, various uncles and cousins and 6 children. She is probably in her 30s though as nobody keeps track of time, ages are only guessed at. Closest in age to me is Jaibu, a very stubborn and hardworking 8 year-old who thoroughly enjoys her authority over her younger siblings. Jaibu and I share a bed in the women’s hut—a one room round hut made from mud and straw and shared by 5 women and children. Though it lacks running water or electricity, Its cool temperature makes it a highly desirable destination to relax in the hot afternoons. A new ritual I’ve become especially fond of is bucket bathing, and I look forward to the early morning trips to the well with Jaibu to collect the water. Though I’m probably about seven or eight years her senior, she can far outperform me in all daily tasks and finds my clumsy efforts to draw water from the well endlessly entertaining. Apparently everyone here finds nearly everything I do hysterically funny; whenever I pound millet, wash clothing, tie a headscarf, or even eat with my hands in true Senegalese fashion, a small crowd of children and young mothers with babies on their hips circle around to gape and laugh at the inept American girl attempting to do basic household chores. In the beginning I didn’t appreciate the constant audience and the feelings of embarrassment and stupidity that followed me around for the first few days. Since then, however, I have learned the Pulaar phrase for “please teach me,” and am now on the road to vast improvement as I learn the various skills that generations of mothers have passed along to their daughters since the beginning of time! In response to my pleas for instruction, little Jaibu has taken me on as her pupil. Now, at the trips to the well at dawn, she teaches me proper hand technique to ensure that maximum water retrieval. She helps me to hoist the full water bucket onto my head and, using basic body language, instructs to keep my neck straight and eyes ahead. I then follow her slowly on the route back to our hut. After about 30 seconds my head feels on the verge of cracking open and I ponder what the long-term implications and damages of spinal compression are. My shoulders are already soaking because I can’t seem to keep water from sloshing all over the place. By now, Jaibu is always a good 50 feet ahead of me, busily chatting with other girls as she walks comfortably with only one hand on the edge of the even larger bucket balancing perfectly on her little head. Though carrying water every morning is a rather painful reminder of my inadequacies (how did my mother in New York fail to teach me these fundamental life skills?!), early morning bucket baths are still a highlight of the day. There is something really beautiful about watching the sunrise over the rice farrow while bathing in the company of many women and children. The overwhelming heat of the midday sun has yet to hit, and I’ve discovered how far even just a third of a bucket of water can go, and how to make it more than sufficient for a full bath. I’ve also reconciled myself to sharing the shower area with cattle that roam about freely. Thanks to a goat who trampled the straw fencing a few days ago, there is now a gaping hole providing a second entrance and a scenic view out across the fields to gaze out of while showering. It has become my morning routine and now, on day five, seems the most natural schedule in the world. Occasionally it is during these moments of ordinary daily activity– pulling water, carrying it on my head, scooping it with a gourd shell– that I remember where I am. I do a little “zoom out” in my head and imagine a globe (an object the people of Sara Souma have no comprehension of) and picture my little pinpoint in West Africa, and then my parents’ pinpoint in New York, a friend’s pinpoint in California, Pakistan, or China. It’s during these daily activities that I think about showering in Paul Revere, not with longing, but with a sense of wonder, strangeness, and astonishment. I’ve come to accept that when I’m sitting under a baobab tree sipping tea, my home in New York is vague and hazy– as abstract and surreal as mud huts will probably seem when I’m sitting in a Starbucks sipping coffee in downtown Andover, Massachusetts in a few short months. Earlier this afternoon we experienced an unusually strong rainstorm. Within a few minutes the sky changed from clear blue to a dark grey and the entire ground became slippery mud in the downpour. At first we all took cover under the huts and sat staring blankly out into the rain. To break the monotony a few kids began a game of shoving one other outside the hut into the rain. Within several minutes the game had evolved into a raucous water fight. Kids peeled off soaking clothes and chased each other around slipping and sliding in the mud, splashing one another in the puddles, and pushing others to the ground. At first I resisted their attempts to pull me in with them. No, sorry, I don’t particularly enjoy being “selby” (Pulaar for wet), especially when I know there’s no hot shower or warm, dry clothes awaiting me afterwards. But their giggling and squealing was too much to resist. The kids prevailed and soon enough I was sliding in the mud with them, covered from head to in brown slime. As I chased them around laughing at the absurdity of the situation and how ridiculous I felt, I couldn’t help but recall another instance in which I abandoned my inhibitions and concerns about getting wet: a particularly large snowball fight that erupted outside Ryley shortly before sign-in one Saturday night in January. Though home is miles and miles away from here and my language and culture seem even more distant, it is these universal qualities of human spirit – how we are able to communicate, laugh, dance, and play without a word in common—that remind me why I bother to abandon the material and emotional comforts of home and why I’ve found myself here.