What Senegal is Teaching Me About Life and Death

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have a site-mate.  This isn’t the case for all PCVs, but at least in Senegal, if you’re in a bigger town/city site it’s likely you’ll have a site-mate.  My site has a CED (community economic development) volunteer (me) and an urban agriculture volunteer (my site-mate).  My site-mate that was here when I got here recently COSed (completion of service — I know, Peace Corps acronyms are ubiquitous) and is now back in America.  A couple of weeks ago the new volunteer arrived.

My site-mate’s family is like my second family.  Like my family, they are used to volunteers, from our weird cultural differences to our broken Pulaar.  They know to speak slowly and simply and to forgive us our cultural faux paus.  This is especially the case with this family, as Kelly (my new site-mate) is their 8th volunteer.  That means they’ve had volunteers living with them for almost 15 years.  Needless to say, I spend lots of time at their house, hanging out, drinking tea, being coerced into staying for meals, etc.

About a week ago, the head of the household, my site-mate’s dad, Balla Balde, passed away.  His death hit me and all of those that he left behind hard.  He worked extensively with PC and countless volunteers.  I felt very close to him despite the language barrier.  He was always looking out for the volunteers.  He wasn’t old– his death came as a shock to us.  One day he was feeling sick and he went to the hospital in the regional capital and never came back.

I for one was searching for an explanation.  What happened exactly?  Did people know he was that sick?  But, true to Senegalese culture, no one else seemed too concerned with the specifics.  All I got was, “He was sick” or “It was his heart.”  I guess, ultimately, these questions aren’t that relevant.  “He left now.  He’s not here anymore.”

When I heard of his death, I had just spent about 12 hours traveling up north to spend some time on the beach with friends for the holidays.  I got a text from my new site-mate with the news and stared at it for a couple minutes, unable to believe it was true.  I made several calls — my mom, my brother, my Pulaar teacher, another PC worker that lives in my town — hoping that someone would tell me it wasn’t true and that my site-mate misunderstood.  Despite having traveled all day I decided to head back home early the next morning.  I spent another 12 hours traveling the next day and made it home that night.

Senegalese funerals are very different from American funerals.  They last for days, even weeks.  Everyone comes to the house and spends all day there.  There is lots of crying, greeting, eating, and of course, drinking tea.  This house was packed with people when I got there.  People from all over Senegal — Kedougou, Dakar, you name it — this man touched so many lives.  Especially within my town, I would say that he was one of if not the most well-known and respected figure.  Our mayor died a couple years back and people tell me that Balla’s funeral was more well attended.

When I got to the house, I couldn’t be in denial anymore.  The reality of Balla’s death started to sink in.  I was upset.  Balla had been so immensely helpful to me in my first months at site which, obviously, are a vulnerable time.  He was patient, warm, and encouraging.  He never told me I couldn’t speak Pulaar and would instead slowly explain things if I didn’t understand.  He was a very well-connected man in my town and was always able to help me with any problems I was having. I couldn’t believe that he was gone and I wouldn’t get to talk to him again, to thank him for all that he did.  I felt an immense sadness.

Pulaar people have a lot of wisdom about death.  It seems to me that Senegalese people in general are much more used to death than we are, or at least, than I am.  As I sat at Balla’s house thinking about how sad this all was, I was comforted even by the simplest things that people were saying.

“Aduna ko ni tan” — The world is this only.

“Hannde no ga, jango no ton” — Today is here, tomorrow is there.

They say that people love people.  But Allah loves people more.  When a woman has a baby, she is happy.  That baby came into our world.  But Allah is sad because the baby was taken away from him.  When someone dies, we are sad.  But Allah is happy because that person has returned to him.

I’ve never taken that much comfort from religion.  But for some reason, this story comforted me.  Perhaps because it comforted those around me.

Yesterday I was sitting with one of my site-mate’s host sisters, Thiane.  She lost her mom a couple years back and now her dad is gone too.  Family dynamics in a polygamous household are complicated.  Resentment can easily build between co-wives and this can manifest between children as well.  Thiane is the oldest daughter among her siblings that have the same mom as her.  She has an older brother and two younger sisters.  Her brother goes to school in a nearby town and isn’t around very much.  Thiane is 20 years old and is now solely responsible for her younger sisters.  On top of this she is still in school (something that is rare for girls her age) and has two more years of high school with dreams of going to university afterwards.

As we were sitting in her compound and the sun was setting, she was telling me about how she is an orphan now.  How this will be hard on her and her sisters because there is no longer an adult in the house to look out for them.  She’s paid her school fees this year, but is already wondering who, if anyone, will pay next year.  She held tears in her eyes as she told me that she hopes to study enough so she can get a good job and a house for her and her siblings.  They only have each other now.

Again and again, I am reminded of how fortunate I have been in this life.  And, again and again I am also reminded how uncertain the future is.  The last conversation I had with Balla was over the phone.  I told him I would be leaving town for a few days for Christmas, and he said that he would see me when I got back, inshallah.  We as volunteers often use inshallah as more of a joke or an easy way to get out of things.  In this case, Balla’s inshallah held more weight than I ever could have imagined.  I never would have guessed that I would never see or talk to him again.  But this is the essence of inshallah.  No one knows what the future holds, and we must all make our peace with that.  I know Balla had.

RIP Balla Balde.  Yo allah yurme yaafo mbo.

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