Something Ventured

15 July 2000

I was on my way home via the A train to Brooklyn feeling kind of drained. Maybe it was from the good cry I had had at Djoniba’s Dance & Drum Centre. My friend Noori had brought a bunch of snapshots from her Senegal trip last year. She had taken the trip with Babacar, our Sabar dance teacher, and his brother Cheikh. I didn’t want to see the pictures. I was already feeling a little emotional and excited about going to Africa. The legacy of my ancestors being enslaved in America and longing to return home to the motherland sent chills through me. When I saw the snapshots of Senegal, Africa, I felt a surge of energy run through my body. My hands trembled as I held the pictures of children, mothers, fathers, sheep, land, sky and trees. Then my heart opened up. I hadn’t known I would react that way. But I did. I cried from happiness. I shed one tear after another thinking how my ancestors longed to go home to the motherland, Africa. “One day,” my ancestors used to chant, “I will return home.”

Now a chance to return home for my ancestors, my family. They made so many sacrifices here in America, but they never surrendered the dream of returning. But I am, after 500 years, able to return. Once my feet touch the soil of Africa, I’m going to kiss the ground.

Yet I know, so much time has passed that the dust of time makes people’s memories fade. But I haven’t forgotten. Thank God!

16 July 2000

I was wide awake on the Air Afrique plane to Senegal. I almost went to sleep but was disturbed by the smell of food. Fish or beef. I chose fish, since I’m a semi-vegetarian. The fish was bland. So, I asked for hot sauce. The flight attendant threw her hands up, shook her head and walked away.

Belynda, the organizer of the trip and a friend of mine, laughed. After my meal I went to where all the flight attendants were to ask, “What happened to my hot sauce?” The flight attendant said that I would get plenty of it in Africa.

I also had noticed the female flight attendants were wearing African cloth turquoise and purple dresses, but the men were dressed in European collared pin-striped shirts and beige slacks. I was very happy to see that the women were dressed in traditional African clothes. That’s why I figured, it would be fine to ask for hot sauce.

Belynda said, “Wait until you arrive in Africa and see it for real.”

17 July 2000

I continued to read my book Waiting In Vain by Colin Channer. I almost fell asleep on page 90 when the flight attendant announced, “Good morning everyone. Now it’s time to put on your safety belts. We are about to land.” So, I didn’t sleep a wink.

When the plane landed, I was too tired to cry. I was euphoric. I felt as if I had been there before. My spirit said, “Senegal hasn’t changed much.”

I am here: Mangi fii. The heat was so intense, it was visible. It looked like clear drapes blowing in the wind. The soil was a rich orange red. It reminded me of the soil in the American south, but the people looked and dressed differently. I was very happy to see them, especially Babacar. He was the one who made it possible for us to come to Africa.

The first stop was Babacar’s mother’s house in Medina. As soon as we got off the bus, the people gathered around us and gave us chairs to sit on. The Sabar drummers and dancers came out to drum and dance for us. There was a geewall, a griot, to bless Babacar’s family and us Americans. The tradition is that we were supposed to give her money. Who knew? I could only look at her and smile. My Wolof wasn’t good enough to understand her. But whatever she said I felt very touched by it when we went on to Yembule, about an hour away from Dakar.

We were to stay at a compound with plenty of rooms, sand, dust and bugs. There were no modern facilities there — no running water, no toilets that flush, just a hole in the ground. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the same way at Babacar’s mother’s house.

We are spoiled in America. We take a great deal for granted.

I felt perfectly happy to sit down on the street in front of Babacar’s house and greet the people. My Wolof was getting better out there. The more I spoke it, the better my tongue rolled with it.

I hung out with Babacar’s sister Ajaa. She’s something else. She makes me laugh, and she doesn’t hold her tongue for anything. She kept telling me she was going to hook me up with a husband. I told her, “Three weeks is not enough time for me to find a husband, and the ones who are talking to me are already taken.”

When we arrived at our compound in Yembule, I had to clean the shower stalls and bathrooms before I used them. There was no way I could’ve used the bathroom like it was. I poured Pine-Sol down the hole, and when I did, a pink lizard crawled out of the cracks along with two huge cockroaches. Eventually, I took a shower in water drawn from a well using a teapot and a bucket. I was reminded of being down south with my grandmother.

My grandmother, who passed away about twenty years ago, lived without modern conveniences. We had to draw water from the well, and if we wanted hot water, we had to heat it up. The only modern amenity she had was electricity for a refrigerator and a television set to watch her wrestling. I’m glad my grandmother raised my cousins and I like that. She always told us living that way was the best way. Although I love my grandmother, I used to count down the days of summer until I could return to the modern, fast New York and eat canned foods.

In the morning, we were to go to market. I hoped the Senegalese would be fair. There were so many tubab (Caucasians) in our group, the vendors were likely to raise their prices.

18 July 2000

At 6 a.m. I could not sleep. I awoke to sounds of sheep, crowing, and Muslim prayers. I would have to get used to it. I learned I soon would have to move to the roof. Belynda, my roommate said she couldn’t sleep because of my snoring. She told me that afternoon, “Doreen, I thought you were going to hurt yourself.”

I felt terribly guilty, because I have this condition. But life goes on. I tried to forget about it by indulging in a fresh-baked baguette with butter and chocolate spread and Nescafé instant coffee. Breakfast cost a dollar and change, which is 1,000 CFA.

Right after breakfast, we rode to Dakar to change our currency. The rate was 680 CFA to one American dollar. There was a man outside of the bank with a twisted and contorted body. His legs were twisted like a pretzel and he balanced himself with his hands. One hand was out for money. My friend Fatou told me that this is what happens when babies get improperly immunized. Inside the bank, I got more than 200,000 CFA for my measly $300.

The market was intense. Before we walked inside, the vendors were bargaining their wares. They gathered around us like bees to honey, or better yet, like flies on candy. They clung to us. They saw tubab and Americans, and that spelled money. Later for the brother and sister kinship. It was all about the CFA! I bought a few wooden masks and statues at market, and we ate lunch back at the compound in Yembule.

After bowls of tiebou djen, fish and rice, we had drum and dance class. That was my first time experiencing drumming, and being in Africa made the dance more titillating. Babacar’s sister, Ajaa, danced with us and taught half of the class. She barely spoke English. So, Fatou and I taught Ajaa how to count in English. I had noticed many of the women either didn’t speak English well or didn’t know how to speak French. They only spoke Wolof. In order for them to speak European languages, they would have had to have the privilege of going to school. But not many African women have that luxury.

After class, we all lied down on the roof. We laughed, talked, and all of a sudden, experienced the first of many power outages — blackouts. Babacar said, the reason for blackouts is politics. One politician turns on the lights. Another turns them off. So, we gazed at the stars, which were more vivid, and ate dinner with a flashlight hanging from the palm-leaf roof.

While we were dressing to go to the night club, the lights turned back on and I yelled, “Alhamdoulilah!” which means “Thank God!”

We danced at The Sunrise night club until 5 a.m. It started out like a regular night club with Senegalese music, of course. The music was sultry, and the women and men danced seductively. They showed their jellies and bin bins, their waist beads. They danced low to the floor and wouldn’t miss a beat. I tried it, but I was struggling a little. The Senegalese clapped for me nevertheless. It felt good.

By 3 a.m. everyone had cleared the floor and was sitting in a circle for the Sabar drummers and dancers. There was a moment of suspense. I didn’t know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised. The women could dance their you-know-what-off. They were so good. Their legs and arms flew to the rhythm. I was so inspired, so in awe, I could barely move a muscle.

At the compound, sitting in the room with Belynda, I was too tired to pitch the tent I had bought in New York. I just dragged my foam bed up there. Then I went back downstairs to get some other things. When I returned to the roof, my bed was gone. Lamine, who ran upstairs after me, said he had to move it because it was going to rain.

I didn’t want to sleep in that area, but there were no single rooms either. I felt stuck. I wanted to go home. I eventually found an empty bed near Bridgette and fell asleep.

19 July 2000

I talked and mingled with the Senegalese people in the compound. I talked to Babacar’s sisters in their room. We laughed and talked in Wolof for hours. I was startled that I could understand the language. If I analyzed the words though, I froze up.

While I was talking and laughing, Babacar and Eladj moved my belongings from Belynda’s room without my permission. Babacar said that a white married couple was coming, and they needed Belynda’s and my room. I thought that was the rudest thing in the world.

I asked Babacar why he hadn’t look for me before moving my stuff. He said that he thought I was asleep on the roof and Belynda had said that I had moved out of the room. Belynda denied it. She said, “I just told them that you were now sleeping on the roof.”

Well, what a topsy-turvy night and day. But all was not bad. We had drum class and learned Yabba and the Nairobi rhythms. Afterwards, we ate a scrumptious tiou djen, fish in red sauce, for lunch. Then we daparted for a beach called Baye Bas, or something like that.

We danced on the beach and had an audience of children. They clapped, smiling and pointing at us. When it was my turn to dance, I fell on the sand to the beat. I wasn’t embarrassed. I just kept on dancing. The children loved it. When we finished, our audience danced to the drums while we swam. The water was so warm it was like a bath.

On the bus back to Yembule, we sang songs in Wolof and American, songs like Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and the “The National Black Anthem.” I felt as though I was floating on a cloud. It was so much fun. Tiou Guinnar, chicken in red sauce, was waiting for us at the compound to eat. All the food I have eaten here so far has been extremely tasty and good. As a compliment to the food, my friend Fatou would say, “You make me wanna slap your mama!”

20 July 2000

I awoke to the noise of the other people sleeping on the roof. The couple who’d arrived, preferred sleeping on the roof, too. So it was a waste of time to move Belynda’s and my stuff out of the room.

I’ve been constipated. I haven’t gotten used to going to the bathroom like that. I’ve been eating lots of bread and rice. The Senegalese people cook a lot of rice, tieb.

The food is so delicious though. It’s hard to resist. I have watched Mame Ali and Marie Baye cook, that is, togg. They steep everything in palm oil. It’s interesting talking to them. Just by sitting and listening, I learned a lot.

We went to the zoo today. My idea of Africa is to see the animals roam free. But when I saw them locked in cages and malnourished, I grew frustrated. Babacar told me that Senegal is civilized now and animals belong in cages — as if he were so proud to say that.

That evening we had yet another blackout. We had to dance by candlelight, and when I connected with my ancestor. This journey has been completely spiritual for me. I felt as though I was dancing for my family. I felt one with God.

Mame Ali and Marie Baye served a dinner which the majority of the people couldn’t eat. It was meat. Babacar made the women cook something we all can eat — eggs.

Then we dressed for the Tenabere in Medina. I had never seen anything like it before. A Tanabere is very special. It is like a block party with lights. Hundreds and hundreds of people were gathered in a circle to dance Sabar in the street. When we arrived, many were sitting in plastic outdoor chairs. The women had put on all their make up and their best grand bubus and silvery shoes to look special.

I had heard Sabar drumming, but nothing like this. The women were dancing, and Babacar and Eladj did their solos. Mali got up to dance and so did Martha. The rest of us watched, mouths open so wide flies could have flown in. I felt as though I was born again. I wanted to dance so badly but couldn’t. Babacar’s sisters wanted to know why I didn’t dance. They told me I was dressed for the part and everything. I was wearing a grand bubu, a head wrap, a wrap skirt called a lapa, and even a bejiou, a slip underneath my lapa. When I told them that I was shy — dama la ruus — they laughed. The night was like a fairy tale. Then there was another blackout, and the Tenebere came to a halt.

On our way back to Yembule, we stopped in a store at a gas station and bought all kinds of goodies. I treated Babacar’s sister, Mame Ali, Marie Baye, and Aziz’s sister to yogurt, cookies, biscuits and things like that, because they worked so hard in the kitchen.

21 July 2000

I was back to sleeping on the roof. This morning was a little hot and humid. I felt ill. My scratchy throat had progressed to a head cold. I felt tired, but I didn’t let that stop me from going to the market. I found the most unique kinds of colors and textures of fabric. I bought three pieces of fabric lined in gold thread and silver.

Our bus was always stopped on the way to the market by the police. We paid taxes, tariffs, tickets, and what not. One reason was that our driver Eladj did not have the proper papers. Babacar also said that Eladj has different blood, and he could not walk or drive freely in Dakar. I was flabbergasted and felt proud to be American. Then again, I remembered the dilemma of driving while black.

During these transactions, my friend Mali and I commented on how depressed we were to see our people of Dakar living under corrugated roofs propped with tin poles. Many people live on the streets to sell their wares. I could have blamed slavery and the Europeans, but I also thought, right now we need to take the responsibility.

Eventually, someone clad in a white grand bubu popped out of nowhere and drove our bus to Medina. Eladj sat in the back of the bus and watched silently. Another reason why we didn’t travel through Dakar that much was that Babacar and his family are griots. Many people look down on them, and say they are disgusting because they always beg for money. But griots keep the Sabar tradition alive.

After the market, we danced on the roof for the people of Yembule. It was a fun experience, although I felt ill and couldn’t give my all. We danced Kaolack and Narri Goron which are different forms of Sabar.

About the Director

Doreen Bowens

Doreen Bowens is a journalist and life-long student of African dance and culture. She’s reported on police, minority issues, and breaking news for such papers as the New York Daily News, The Oakland Tribune, and The Oregonian. Bowens holds an MJ in journalism from UC-Berkeley, and in 1997 she received The Bob Whittingon Award for Reporting. She currently lives and works in Fort Green, NY.