Hotel La Residence
St Louis, Senegal
The drive back from Podor took me through a spectrum of feelings I never expected. We had to come this way instead of going directly South to Touba because the dirt roads are washed out and impassible.
My original plan was to make this return trip slowly, stopping at tiny farms, meeting the people, photographing and giving away the gifts we had brought. Instead we were asked to give the young man who we first met on entering town, a ride to the home of his relatives so he could attend a baptism. We were not sure how far along the way back to St Louis he needed to go but we had to leave right after dawn to get him there on time.
I found myself not wanting to leave our hosting family. In the short time we were there a number of the men and women I met had touched my heart, despite my not speaking a word of their language.
There was the tall man I ran with in the morning. He is incredibly thin, dark and beautiful and took it very seriously when I mentioned in gestures that I wanted to do it. He took me off into the wilderness along a dirt path and set a pace I could keep, thank heavens.
There was the thin faced man with the quick eyes who stayed up all night and never moved from the place he fell asleep at some point before dawn.
Then of course there was the beautiful young woman named Aby who lived with her daughter and mother across the way. Through Alan's interpretation I learned that she really felt that I should consider a second wife. I appreciated the thought but smiled inside to Susannah. She ended up making a determined press towards Alan, which made much more sense, except that she had no chance against his passion for Yesim.
The strange thing is that I know these people from Brooklyn. So much about their faces and mannerisms is familiar, and yet there they have something they don't here: edges or tensions that must in some way be the result of having made the trip.
The old mother of the family is not familiar though. My Grandmothers had none of this profound sense of place, at least as far as I could know as a child. Imogen and Sandra Weiner come close. I have been blessed to have known so many Great Women.
This woman has blue dye around her mouth and wears brightly colored shawls and gowns. She and her companion, a slightly younger woman, sit in the extreme corner of the porch, talking animatedly when they are not working, cooking, cleaning and caring for the children. Men and women lead separate but united lives here. Together but distant. Open but closed at the same time.
I knew I needed to do something to express my gratitude for being made so welcome but the only thing I could see that they really needed was a refrigerator. The door of one they have fell off when I tried to put my hardboiled eggs in on the first day. I asked Badou if that was feasible but he wrinkled his brow and said that that would be far too much. "Give 20,000 CFA" he said. I made it 22,000 and asked him to say to her as we paid our parting respects, that I deeply appreciated the way they had opened their home for us. She smiled and said in return that I had discovered a new family and must come back when I could. I will.
It turned out that Daouda's family lives three quarters of the way back to St Louis so instead of stopping to meet people and photograph, I had to be contented to shoot landscapes through the car window again as we raced to get him there as soon as possible.
The tensions with Alan were building and I could feel his brooding as he drove quickly over the potholes and around the buses. Our problems are partly just the normal irritations of being together for so long on the road, but there are also dynamics that are making it harder. For one thing, Alioune's fawning love for me, and the fact that he is exhalting in a new freedom irritates Alan greatly. As far as I can tell, Alioune is acting out the role of a normal adolescent and frankly, the fact that we have been given the opportunity to do this for him outweighs any concerns I might have about how this is affecting him. Alan is sure that I am over-indulging him and time will have to tell us the resolve of that.
But there are also deeper issues that will unfold with time. They have in some ways to do with the difference in our ages but there is more to it than that.
What happened is that, after a day that I spent my time, running errands and photographing, I came back to our host's house tired and hungry. Alan has been exhausted from all of the typing work he has had to do so he relaxed through that day under the thorn tree in the yard with the other men. When I got back I immediately wanted to use the energy I had left to type my journal/letters but finding a cool spot where the flies were not swarming was extremely difficult. I was running out of daylight and they have very limited electricity there so I was pressing myself to work.
Just when I had what I thought was a good spot, Badou came up with a plate of food that the women had prepared just for my odd dietary needs: a two egg white omelet, fried potatoes and peas! I sat there amazed at their thoughtfulness, with one hand holding the plate and the other trying to type when Alan frantically stuck his head in the door and said in an agitated voice "Do you want to give this guy a ride down the road?" I dramatized a look at the plate in my hand and keyboard in my lap and said "Is that how I look when I'm ready to leave immediately? What's up?" He explained that Daouda needed something before going to the baptism but that Alan had told him that he was too stressed and tired to take him. I frankly found this disturbing in itself. I have not seen the bottom of the generosity we had been shown, but Alan can be sensitive and anxious... so I said, "Does he need to go right away?" "No he can probably wait 20 minutes" I was told, so I said that I would do it. "Great" Alan said, then he told me that he was about to drive somewhere to get a TV and I blew a fuse at him. "You mean that you are fresh enough to get a TV but not enough to give this guy a ride! That makes no sense!! What makes you think that your needs and projects are more important than mine... etc, etc.." My sainthood will have to wait a while.
He had never seen me act out in this way, and I quickly apologized but the damage had been done.
So here we were, driving in tense silence back towards St Louis, both knowing that eventually there would have to be a reckoning.
Our trip to the baptism ended up taking us much further and deeper into Africa than we ever could have imagined. When we got to the dusty, impoverished road town Daouda directed us down a bumpy road, over a bridge where children swam in the canal, and through a short maze of narrow streets to his house. Once there we were swept up into the energy and warmth of this new family and the event they were celebrating.
The new mother was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in my life. She was resplendent in a brilliant white gown but also serene in new motherhood. The father was older and wearing a jet-black long shirt and a smile so broad that he glowed. There were number of women slaughtering and cooking a lamb, and dozens of children fascinated to see new creatures with toys appear. The men were gathered in the shade of a grass-roof enclosure, talking animatedly and Alan joined them while I spent almost all of the film that remained photographing the children and all that was going on.
One happy woman in a blue gown took it upon herself to be my director and, through gestures, told me that I had to follow she and her friends to the stream to document the cleaning of the rice. She was right. It was a photographic wonder. I only hope my eye and new camera were up to it.
There was also the Islamic classroom teeming with happy children and so much more that I barely noticed that it had come to be 3pm and I had not eaten a bite all day.
It seemed time to rest and join the men for a change and, besides, I had been curious all day about what Alan was talking with them about . As I sat down he translated that they were asking him philosophical questions about being a non-Muslim black man. All of sudden I was no longer tired, but also truly frustrated that I couldn't speak French. There was one man holding forth in the center of the group wearing a red striped shirt who I had photographed earlier because he had a sharp intensity that attracted my attention. He was Alan's primary foil so I sat down in front of him and tried to project interest despite the language barrier. He kept meeting my gaze with a powerful stare and finally Alan said that he wanted to know what I thought about the question at hand. "So what would you do if you fell in love with a woman who was not of your religion?" He asked. "That's easy for me" I replied. "I'm a Buddhist", knowing that I was opening a path to deep waters.
The man pointed to my beads and asked to hold them. As he fingered them one by one I said "103" in French to him, hoping that I had remembered correctly. "108" he said and I bowed at the waist to him in deference.
But the question remained, so I told them, awkwardly through Alan's translation, and tension, that it's easy to change ones religion if need be but much more difficult to change one's heart. This brought nods of approval, but now I was being engaged.
"So what do Buddhists believe about what should be done to people who do harm?" I was asked. For example, what about the men who stole your money. In Islam they would have their hands cut off. The handless men on the streets of Dakar came to mind but I said that Buddhist believe that all things in the universe are connected and that Reality was a better judge than any man could be. At this, the man asked to have this written down so he could study what that meant, and Alan obliged generously.
"But what about heaven and hell?". Now I had a willing ally because I noticed Badou sitting on the outside of the discussion. I pointed to him and said that, ''This man told me that a good man has everything and a bad man has nothing". Badou nodded deeply and explained what I said to them in Wolof. But there was a tall thin man who needed more. "But don't Buddhist believe that bad people go to hell?".. "No, Buddhist believe that there is only Now. " I gestured strongly with my hand and said "Maitenant". Hoping that that meant "Only now". It seemed to have the effect I wanted. "But how are bad people punished in Buddhism?" I was asked. "Bad people and good people live in hell or heaven right here, right now" I replied. But how are they punished?" they persisted. Bad people are forced to live with bad hearts I replied. The intense man was watching me extremely closely now. I wished that I could talk to him directly. Alan was doing his best but it was difficult, and besides, I had suddenly become the center of attention again.
Then the thin tall man asked a wonderfully probing question. "Did you do something wrong to have your money stolen?" I paused two beats and said "Perhaps so. I certainly needed to have that lesson, but it's also true that the universe is extremely complex and bad things happen to good people also".
Then the question I had been waiting for finally came. The intense man in the striped red shirt looked at me and asked "Do Buddhists believe in God?. Luckily I had been prepared for this by a beggar boy in Dakar weeks ago who had aske me the same question. "If by God you mean something separate from all that there is, then no, Buddhists do not believe in God". I said this very aware of the weight on many levels I was taking on by even venturing into this dialog, much less taking on that question. I waited through the translation and watched their faces. To my delight, they all nodded in agreement and the man in front of me asked for a pen and paper. I rushed my journal into his hands and he drew a circle with an Islamic character in the center and added radiating lines. "All paths lead to God" he spoke. "Yes" I gestured with as much enthusiasm as I could render. He then wrote some words in French above the drawing: "Tous ont crois en ieu car apres la vie il aura la paradis et l'enfer tout. La religon meme. "Dieu". Again, I agreed when Alan translated for me. Essentially, "All roads lead to God."
Later he wrote this below his drawing: "Tout somme tres content de voir notre parent pardu en etat unir".
What he meant by this has more meaning for me than I could ever have imagined discovering there and then.
At one point in our discussion he finally broke through the philosophical talk to say that he had something else on his mind. "I know who you are" he said. I began to feel something deep and strange. "What do you mean?" I asked. "I know people who look just like you". "Where do they live?" I asked, half expecting that he would say in Kaolak where we were heading. "In Podor!" He said. Then I noticed that he had a thin scar on his forehead, a faint echo of mine. The intensity of the moment built as he told me that he was SURE that he and I were related and that I had returned from America to rejoin my people. This is what those words he wrote mean. What they mean to me.... I don't know how to say.... Going to Kaolak is no longer a priority. From that moment on Babacar and I were brothers.
Returning to Podor someday is what I know I will do.
For now I am here.