About four weeks ago, a member of my host family passed away. She was my aunt, and her name was Fatimata Diallo. Unfortunately, her death coincided with me leaving for vacation in South Africa (stay tuned for another, happier, post about that in the coming days).
Before I left, I sat down to write a post about Fatimata’s death. Writing helps me process my thoughts and feelings and often leaves me with a better understanding of things than I had initially. But in this case, I found myself staring at a blank page. Where to start? How could I begin to sum up this woman’s life and impact? How could I bring myself to use the past tense about this person who I still couldn’t believe was really gone?
About two years ago when I first received my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, I remember reading through all the literature that they had sent with my invitation. There was information about Peace Corps in general, Senegalese culture, packing lists and advice for new volunteers. One section that really stood out to me was about dealing with death. There was what could be perceived as a warning to new volunteers that they may be faced with the deaths of their friends and family in their country of service, probably due to illnesses and lack of good health care. I remember finding this ‘warning’ to be concerning, but resolved to cross that bridge if and when I came to it, as they say.
Unfortunately I seem to have found myself on this bridge more than most volunteers in Peace Corps Senegal do, and it hasn’t gotten any easier to cross. Fatimata is the third person that I knew well who has passed away during my time here in Senegal, and without a doubt the most difficult death for me and my family.
When I first arrived in my site about a year and seven months ago, Fatimata was the one who truly supported me in this difficult transition period. My host mom works and is away from the house during the day, but Fatimata was always around. She did the bulk of the housework and took care of everyone in the family, myself included. She was patient with my Pulaar and was one of the few people that took time to practice with me. She would save me meals if I missed them, and when she noticed I liked a particular dish she would make it more often. When I was sick, she would come and sweep my room and pull water from the well for me because she knew I was too weak to do these things myself. If I was too sick to come out to eat with the family she would ask me what I wanted to eat and go buy it for me, or save me food for when I was ready. Though she was my host aunt, she was really more like another mother to me.
There were a couple of times that I had misunderstandings with certain members of my family due to the language and cultural barrier. When I got upset and went to my room, she would come after me and patiently explain the misunderstanding and urge me to come back outside and sit with everyone. She was always the first to assure me that I was a member of the family just like everyone else and not to let anyone treat me any differently. She made me feel like I belonged, something that some volunteers never have the privilege of feeling.
Fatimata was a strong and stoic woman who never stopped working. In addition to all the housework and cooking, she would often make snacks like roasted peanuts or corn to sell on the road in the afternoons. But she worked too hard and was always tired and very thin. She didn’t eat much and often complained to me about stomach pains and other ailments. I knew from the beginning that she was a sickly person, but this is not rare in Senegal and I never could have imagined how serious it was. She hid the gravity of her illness from everyone — being a model Senegalese wife and mother, she worked hard and didn’t complain.
Several months ago, the severity of things came to light. Fatimata started to have trouble controlling her bladder, which is not an easy thing to hide. Once my family found this out, they decided to send her to Dakar to get better medical care.
But it was too little too late. She had bladder cancer, and it was too advanced for the doctors to be able to help her. In typical Senegalese fashion, they didn’t tell her this outright. Instead they kept making more appointments for more x-rays and more consultations with different doctors — leading her on for months. I went to Dakar a few weeks before she died and visited her. I could tell she was in a lot of pain — both physical and emotional. I can’t imagine what it felt like for a woman as strong and proud as her to have to have someone help her with basic things like bathing and using the bathroom. But she was still there mentally and we sat together and talked for a few hours. She told me all she wanted was to go home.
A couple weeks later, she got her wish. I woke up one morning to her oldest son, Dioulde, knocking at my door. He is studying at University in Dakar and had been watching over his mom while she was there. I was surprised and also devastated to see him. I knew they had brought her home to die. “The doctors can’t do anything, and she wanted to come home,” Dioulde said. I held back tears and replied, “The world is this only,” which is something Pulaar people say when something difficult is happening but there is nothing that can be done to change it.
Over the next few days, Fatimata slowly deteriorated. She was so thin and weak that she couldn’t walk, and she stopped eating completely. She started to lose track of things and didn’t recognize me when I went to greet her, even though I had just seen her a week ago. She would ask to see certain members of the family and then forget that they had already come to greet her that day. It was really hard to see her that way.
I felt even worse because I had a vacation planned and was leaving soon. I knew that Fatimata’s days were numbered, and that once I left I wouldn’t be able to come back for the funeral. Sure enough, the day I left Fatimata passed away. My brother called me with the news, and thankfully I hadn’t left Senegal yet so I was able to talk with everyone in the house over the phone and give my condolences. My family was very understanding and no one was upset that I couldn’t come back. Some of my volunteer friends pointed out that maybe it was for the best. Senegalese funerals are often overwhelming, and involve lots of people gathering at the house of the person who passed away for several days on end after the death. With this turn of events I was able to grieve in my own way.
I am still grieving for Fatimata. She was such an influential figure in my time here in Senegal, and it is still hard for me to believe that she is gone. I am thankful for the time I had with her, and I am happy that she is free of pain and resting now. But acceptance of tragedy — something Senegalese people are so used to — is still hard for me. It is perhaps the most difficult and most valuable lesson that Senegal has taught me so far: “The world is this only.”
I used to pay Fatimata to hand-wash my clothes for me. It was an arrangement that the volunteer before me had set up, and something I was happy to continue. Hand-washing clothes is not easy and it’s not a skill we learn in the States. Fatimata appreciated the extra cash and I appreciated the way she was able to clean even my dirtiest and dustiest clothes just as well if not better than a washing machine could.
Ever since she left, I’ve been washing my own clothes. I’m getting better at it, but it’s a lot of work. I think about how lucky I am to have had Fatimata around when I first got here. She helped me out so much when I needed it, and now I’ve been forced to grow up a little without her here. Now I wash my own clothes and fend for myself in terms of family misunderstandings. I don’t get sick as much anymore (knock on wood) but when I do there’s no one around to take care of me like she did. I’m on my own now, and thanks to Fatimata and many others who have helped me throughout my time here, I’m better equipped to handle this life than I was when I first got here.
Fatimata Diallo, you are missed. I hope that you are in peace now, and I hope you know how much I appreciate everything you did for me. Yo Allah yurme yaafo. Rest in Peace.