I realized I jumped into describing the now without providing any context for why I am here, exactly where I am, who these characters are who are showing up in my stories. Two seconds on context, and then a story of our day.
I am in Senegal with Ahmadou Balde, whom I met last winter when he interviewed at Panorama. He didn’t want the Panorama job, but I followed up with him because his story was so interesting. We had coffee, and I got to learn more about what he was doing and more about him. He is from Labe, Guinea where he and his father built and started a school. Ahmadou ran the school for its first year last year. Ahmadou’s early schooling was in Guinea, but at age 11, he moved to a boarding school in Dakar. The school caters to the elite not only of Senegal, but of many countries in Africa. (We actually visited the school yesterday, and it is amazing - an oasis. A large, gorgeous campus. No kids were there because they are on the same academic year as we are.). At 15, he moved to the United States with his brother. He entered Lynn High School and so went from an extremely high-performing school in Dakar with high expectations to a low performing public high school in Massachusetts. He thinks it is this transition that has made him committed to building the school in Labe - his intense personal experience with how education changes trajectories. He went on to get a BA and an MBA. I think Ahmadou is about 28.
Soon after I met Ahmadou, I left Panorama. Early on I had a goal to spend the summer getting proximate…to things I had not been proximate to before and to people I hadn’t ever known before. I offered to help Ahmadou with the school; he took me up on it. I spent the spring pulling together teacher training materials, learning more from Ahmadou, and partnering with another couple who is also helping him. By late spring, we decided to plan a visit for me. Et maintenont, je suis ici!
Right now, we are staying in a house his family maintains in Dakar. We started in Dakar, instead of directly in Guinea partly for me to be able to visit, partly because it is not so easy to fly directly to Conakry (the capital of Guinea). We will fly to Guinea on Sunday. A young man named Abdulramen lives in the house in Dakar full time to maintain it and prepare it for anyone who is staying here. He is delightful; he works full time and goes to school. He is an accountant and working toward a PhD. He is keen to improve his English, has a quick and warm laugh, and takes care of me without hovering. I have my own room on the second floor; Ahmadou’s room is also on the second floor along with a bathroom and sitting area. So far, I have not discovered hot water, but that is ok - it is hot here, and I take 2-3 showers a day to cool off. Right now, there are also three other people in the house - 2 of Ahmadou’s aunts on his mother’s side, and 1 cousin (son to one of the aunts). They are here because 1 of the aunts had to have surgery on her foot as a result of diabetes. She had a poorly executed surgery in Guinea, and came to Dakar to fix it. They had to amputate her foot. Her son and sister are here to care for her as she convalesces. The aunts speak Fulani only. Doga, the cousin, speaks French, though I can’t really understand him. The full extent of my Fulani: Ja ra ma (which means “thank you” or “good morning” depending on when you say it.). Noweli (“that tastes good”). Noweli fota (“that tastes very good!”). One of the aunts cooks much of the food we eat.
And with that, I will pick up with our day.
Ahmadou’s aunt made a dish she wanted to share with me, so we waited for that to be ready before leaving the house. It got delivered to me upstairs. I had asked Ahmadou if we could all eat together, but he said they might be shy. When they eat, they eat with their hands all out of one dish. I don’t know how they do it! This was fish on a bed of rice with some onions and peppers - again, the flavor and spices were wonderful. I was terrified of choking on a fish bone, but all went well. It was delicious; and I ate by myself. That was ok. I wasn’t actually feeling too great. I feel much better now, and this spicy fish dish actually seemed to settle my stomach.
Around 2, Ahmadou, Doga and I went to a “park” that was also a zoo. The entrance was wonderful; incredible tree canopy, wide walking boulevard. And then we discovered it to be Exhibit F in something that was designed really well, has tons of potential, and seems to be in near total decline. Not total - there were people visiting and people working there. But it was moving toward ragged. A very pretty set of gardens, mostly with potential. We went through an amphibian house, complete with a guided tour. He seemed to like the animals, but it was also clear that the animals were only there for our pleasure and entertainment. Tortoises, lots of snakes, crocodiles. The guy who took us around was quite nice. We went onto the major part of the zoo. This was a like a zoo in the US from 40 years ago. Cages way too small. Animals almost always separated from each other - 1 warthog, 1 camel. Except the lion cage - very small, but with 5-6 lions. Laying on concrete. Surely bored out of their minds.
Monkeys and chimps in cages that were too small. People feeding the chimps and interacting to get the chimps to perform. That was crazy - we saw one man engage two chimps for quite awhile. He was feeding them popcorn. The man gave the chimp a full water bottle; the chimp drank some, laid down and poured it on his stomach and haded the bottle back. He gave the chimp a tissue, and the chimp wiped his forehead and his chest with it. The man gave the empty bottle to his son who ran to re-fill it. And the whole thing happened again. The man was putting the popcorn and tissues in the chimp’s hand; he was not throwing these things into the cage. A third chimp hammed it up for another group by walking with a funny gait and doing a somersault; they gave him a banana. Not kidding. The chimps, the lions. I know it is not slavery, but caging these beings is hard to look at.
We walked a ton, which I enjoyed. We went to Ahmadou’s school - a stunningly beautiful and impressive campus. Then we went to a collection of art studios called the Village des Artes. It is rows of little studios, occupied by individual artists. Mostly painters, though a couple of sculptors. Not so many were open when we got there, and there was no one else wandering around - just one crazy white lady with two Africans. Ahmadou super-interested and asking tons of questions; Doga humoring us and being patient. I bought one small piece from the artist I liked the most, Serge. Originally from Congo, but living in Senegal for many years. His work is bold! Dark black lines, vibrant colors; heads, eyes, hands. Really beautiful. Wild and fun sculptures out of every material imaginable dotted this "village;" artists transforming their specific space and the common space.
On the way home, Ahmadou said more than once: I didn’t know a lion was so tall. The lions in this pretty wretched zoo were the first lions he had ever seen. The guy from Guinea, who lived part of his life in Senegal, had never seen lions. How does that make sense? Does it make better sense that I have seen many lions - all in zoos? And even in circuses when I was young?
Call to prayer happening right now. Sun is setting. Light pink clouds have lost their pink, the sky is slowly getting darker.
My progress with French is glacial. Ugh, it is so hard.
Light and love; luz y amor; la lumiere (??) at l'amour,