Badou has proven to be an extraordinary man. The first thing you would notice about him would be his smile; it's quick and full of joy and knowing. Next would be his eyes; at first they appear red and tired, but actually they are deeply relaxed and warm, the way he is at all times. Finally you would have to notice his ears. I have never seen anything like them. Under the arched top of each one there's a beautiful extra outward fold; as if he were casually wearing shell-like black sculptures on both sides of his calm face.
But the most remarkable thing about Badou is that he embodies a philosophy of life that meets all difficulties with the same sincere reply "No problem". "Badou, the tire is flat". "No problem". "Badou, it's 125 degrees in Podor where we're going!". "No problem". And he really means it. I wish I could convey the quality of the way he says it. There's a deep, open-hearted lilt to his voice that gives you great confidence that all will be well.
He has told us a number of times that the most important thing in his life is his family. He has two girls and one boy who for some reason live in a village miles from NGore where he lives and works as a caddy at the elite hotel where Alan and I regret spending our first night in Africa. One of the only things he has asked for money for is to call his family everyday from the tiny telephone concessions that can be found everywhere here. That amounts to about $1.50 per day for his services as a friend and guide on this trip.
The other important thing for him is to make sure that we understand the true spirit of humanity and hospitality that defines "Senegal" to him. "You are our brothers" he tells us with a convincing passion. "You don't need to pay for anything here. Our money is your money". From most of the people we've met on the streets on Dakar, that statement would have ominous implications but from him it's inspiring.
We discovered, as we sat in the stylish internet cafe in St. Louis, that he has actually been to Podor! I was very glad to hear that. I chose it as a destination because the Lonely Planet cited it as being on the extreme Northern border of Senegal and said that there were friendly people there to meet. As the first stop on our trip away from African cities, I was a bit anxious about what to expect. We would have gone under any circumstances but knowing that he had been there was reassuring.
The trip to Podor began late in the afternoon because St. Louis had much to offer. First there was the Western Union office where I made a necessary stop, and then there was the beach; an incredible sight with hundreds of long colorful boats lined up on the shore and hundreds more children playing in the filthy surf. I did portraits until I made the mistake of running out of film, which I regretted when Alioune, Badou and I took a horse drawn carriage back to the hotel. After some hasty writing and journal posting we were off on the long and bumpy road into the bush.
The trip up from Dakar had given us our first sights of people living on tiny farms amidst park-like landscapes. I've mentioned that Senegal is flat but traveling long distances gives you a real sense of how fascinating "flat" can be. The trees are either alive or dead; skinny or comically thick but they are always distributed on the land as if planted by a garden designer. When you come upon a village the difference between the cinderblock buildings and the thatched huts is dramatic. At some point down the road, (I didn't notice when),the perfect balance to this contrast emerged: building blocks made from mud and straw. The configurations of the buildings remained the same but the architectural aesthetic shifted radically when the brown/red bricks replaced the sterile gray blocks. Mud bricks are much more tolerant of being formed into curved surfaces and they deteriorate into sculpture rather than ruins. Round is the traditional shape of homes here, often with small triangular windows. In some villages the building seems scattered at random but in others the defining characteristic is the wall that defines a housing group with all of the dwellings facing inward. Goats and mule driven plows provide for survival and the powerlines never stop for these communities as they march by.
The lush greens and reds of coastal Senegal give way to a gradually spreading dry yellow as you move North and East. Eventually the powerlines disappear and you are aware of a surreal sense of space. There is nothing but an occasional spot of brown foliage, an oasis and then another village that makes you wonder how they could possibly survive.
When you come to one of the few towns on the way it's a familiar shock. Crowds of desperate people press against the road with the usual mangos and gadgets to sell and the density of activity seems out of place in this setting.
We might stop for diesel fuel and then we are back on the road. Other than the landscape, the road itself would be a free ride except for two things: the pot holes that are deep and either exactly where you need to drive or where you will need to drive on the way back. The other unavoidable things on the road are the ubiquitous mini buses that are the only way most people get from one place to another. They are always filled to literally overflowing and the roofs are sometimes piled with bags until they are twice the bus's normal height. They move slowly and, together with the trucks, make traffic often slow and nerve wracking. But eventually all of life here requires that you adapt to its paces and realities. As a result, tolerance for stress becomes a profound benefit of becoming African.
But becoming African is only an abstraction for a person from a culture where almost unconditional generosity is more the exception than the rule. Here, things are very different.
When we pulled into Podor we were torn between fascination with just seeing the place and concern over where we were going to stay. A hotel may or may not have been an option. It didn't appear so at first glance. Podor is at the end of the road in this country and the flat, brown look of the place seemed empty and lonely. The reality is very different.
I was surprised to discover that it actually is an extremely remote town not a traditional village.
The first person we saw at the entrance to the town was a stern-looking man in military uniform standing next to the telephone office. While Alan and I immediately logged on with his portable computer and corresponded with our respective loves, Badou began a conversation with the man as if they were old friends. In fact he was a perfect stranger but nevertheless he directed us to another man who eventually invited us to stay at his house that night and for as long as we wanted.
The house is on the last street before the town becomes desert and has a huge thorn tree in the middle of the courtyard. Opposite the main house there's a dollhouse for the pigeons they eat for dinner. There is also a large black goat on a short chain who brays with a deep voice that reminds Alan of Barry White. We have been here for almost two days as I write this and it's almost impossible to imagine that the extended family who lives here were total strangers to Badou only days ago. We have been fed and treated like relatives at every turn. Every attempt to pay for anything is politely refused but we were told that it was important to introduce ourselves to the mother of the house and present her with some of the gifts we brought for that purpose. She is the widow of a famous war veteran but like all of the women here it seems to be expected that she will do all of cooking and housework while the men sit under the tree and sleep and talk all day. We also learned that men here are allowed to have up to four wives and when I asked if there were really that many extra women that question seemed to confuse everyone.