Yesterday afternoon I was lingering under the shade structure. We had just finished tea, and my family members were filtering out of the compound. Afternoon tea is an almost daily tradition in my family. It’s not just your average cup of tea though — it’s a long and involved ritual that takes hours to complete. Yes, hours. My (American) parents find this an endlessly amusing part of Senegalese life. “You spend hours each day drinking tea?” Sure do. The tea is slow cooked over a charcoal fire, and served in three rounds. The first round takes about an hour of simmering to prepare and the other two a little less than an hour each. The tea is a green variety imported from China. Part of the tea-making process involves loading it with sugar and sometimes fresh mint. Making it after lunch is common because it is the hottest part of the day when no one really does anything on account of the sun being too hot. It also provides quite the pick-me-up, and is a great time to hang out and chat. Senegalese people gather around tea in much the way Americans gather around alcohol. It’s a structure for socializing. I credit afternoon tea with my Pulaar language acquisition.
Tea was over and I was sitting with a couple of my sisters. A young man who was dressed very nicely walked into the compound and started greeting my sisters. His clothes and shoes were so nice that I knew he wasn’t from around here, but I suspected Dakar. Right now is vacances time, and there have been a lot of people coming down from Dakar to visit their families here. He greeted me in Pulaar and then asked me where I was from. I told him I was from America, and he asked which city. I told him “Chicago?” in the way that I always do when I’m not sure whether or not the person will have any idea what “Chicago” is. And then he said to me in only slightly accented English, “Oh I live in New York City.”
I was floored. I almost didn’t believe him, but he seemed to suspect that and quickly produced his New York driver’s license. Amadou Balde, address in the bronx. I looked at his clothes and shoes again and recognized some American brands. It was so strange to talk with him about America and Senegal. It was the first time he’d come back in five years and he brought his two young daughters who have never seen this place. He said that they keep begging him to go home. I asked him if they speak Pulaar and he said no. That made me sad.
“I don’t know how you live here.” Amadou said. “Now I know what America is like, and I don’t know how you could grow up somewhere like that and come here.”
I told him it’s not easy, but that it is something I wanted to do and I don’t regret it. He seemed in awe, but he didn’t stay to chat long. No doubt when you’ve been gone from Senegal for five years, you have a lot of people to greet upon your return. I told him that before he goes home I want his contact information so I can call him and we can hang out in NYC.
“If I go home I’ll forget Pulaar. I need someone to hang out with and speak Pulaar so I don’t forget” I told him.
“They’ll never believe it!” he said with a big smile. “If you go home to America and speak Pulaar like this no one will believe their eyes.”
Amadou walked out, and ever since I’ve been thinking about the interaction. I’m not sure why it stuck with me so hard. Perhaps just being in the presences of someone that was so recently in America made me a little homesick. The same thing happened on my plane back from Turkey. I sat next to a Gambian immigrant who had been living in America for decades. He had the same layover in Paris as me, but he had just gotten off a plane from Atlanta. It’s like I could smell America on him. I felt the same way about Amadou. But it wasn’t just that. It is also the experience of talking to someone that understands both of my current homes. Someone that has lived in Senegal (or Gambia) and in America. It’s very rare to meet a Senegalese person that has been to America — let alone lived there. The truth is most that go don’t come back. I know there’s a “little Senegal” in NYC, and I dream of going there someday and finding Pulaar people to hang out with. I guess now I have somewhere to start.
Senegal (or Gambia) and in America. It’s rare to meet a Senegalese person that has been to America let alone lived there. The truth is most that go don’t come back. I know there’s a “little Senegal” in NYC, and I dream of going there someday and finding Pulaar people to hang out with. I guess now I have somewhere to start.