Perhaps the greatest gift that Senegal and Africa gave me was the ability, on a mere moment’s notice, to plunge right back into that world, see once again the faces, recall snatches of conversations, hear voices and laughter and cries, and relive experiences as if they had only just happened minutes before. Even in the dead of a bitter Midwestern winter, I could close my eyes and feel the heat and humidity, sense the harmattan, or dry season wind, blowing across my face, and almost break out into a sweat. Sometimes consciously, other times unconsciously, sometimes while awake, other times while asleep, the experiences and sensations and individuals flood in, seizing me and hurling me back to Africa, to Senegal, to the village of Bidiancoto. The memories often feel more real and alive than what I am doing at the actual moment. No matter what I do or where I am, those experiences remain vivid, vital and immediate. Writing these words gives me an opportunity to re-immerse myself, once again, in my times in Senegal.
Recalling that initial descent from the plane and the walk across the blazing tarmac, I am once again completely engulfed in conflicting emotions- excitement, fear, wonder, confusion, utter exhaustion and exhilaration, self-confidence that I could do this (whatever “this” would prove to be), disbelief that I had given up virtually everything comfortable and familiar and easy to come to Africa. I had left the States, family and friends, and jumped into the abyss of Africa. I was with a group of people I barely knew in a totally alien continent to do a job I knew nothing about. Talk about a new beginning. I had committed myself to two years of service, and I was determined to make it work, to avoid being labeled a failure. I needed to prove to myself that I could do it (whatever “it” was). Besides, before heading to Africa, I figured I had travelled before, and enjoyed it tremendously. One of the primary reasons I had joined Peace Corps was to see the world beyond The USA and Europe. But after touching down in Senegal, and seeing the decrepit airport and strange landscape, I suddenly had serious doubts. I had been to several parts of the United States and to some countries in Europe- but this was Africa. None of my previous travels prepared me for this journey.
I knew absolutely nothing about Africa. Two months earlier, when Peace Corps called to tell me I was assigned to Senegal, I had to find a world map to find West Africa, and then had to search for Senegal. When I found it, I still didn’t know anything about it. I tried to visualize its appearance, climate, people, anything- and came up blank. Tourist information from the Senegalese embassy gave me some static, glorified, pristine snapshots, but no context. I had my doubts all along, right up until I stepped off the plane in Dakar. How far would my rusty, college French get me? Had I brought the right clothes? Two years of this heat and dust, with people dressed in strange-looking, free-flowing robes and speaking languages I had never heard of before, never mind being able to understand. Was I embarking on two years of hell on earth? What had I gotten myself into, and could I ever get myself out?
I asked myself that question many, many times during the hours, days, weeks, months, and years I spent in West Africa. Sometimes I knew the answer, and accepted my fate. Other times, I thanked my fate for providing me with such a wonderful experience. At other times I was so tired, hungry, hot, bewildered, angry or lonely that I could barely formulate the question, much less answer it. Sometimes I couldn’t get beyond the simple query “Why?” Why was I here in this relatively unknown, small country on the West coast of Africa? Why was I in this place once known as “the white man’s graveyard?” What was I doing in the heart of darkness? And would I get out, alive or even dead?
I’m still unsure why- why Africa changed my life, why I have devoted my time and energy to thinking, studying, researching, writing, explaining, teaching Africa and its history and its “world.” I have tried to do precisely that- explaining Africa, trying to communicate to others its meaning for me, and in this work perhaps I can explain why, or at least hint at why I adopted Africa. Yet it is more precise and meaningful to write that I was adopted by Africa, and that I, in turn, then adopted Africa. I am sure that I had no choice in the matter. I am grateful that I was adopted, that I was changed personally and professionally. I am grateful that I am never more than a few thoughts away from Africa. And when I think of Africa, I go back to one family to one small village in Senegal. That family adopted me, in every sense of the word, and I adopted them, again in every sense of the word. With time, the ties became closer. With every departure and return to Senegal, our connections are strengthened. I cannot imagine my life without those ties continuing with the family, and the next generation.
In looking for why Africa had such an impact on me, almost from the very first moments, I can assert unconditionally that the answer will be found, not on the vast expanse of photographers’ orangey, sun-lit savannas and steamy rainforests, or the Hollywood view of wild, savage Africa, but in small details, in intimate settings, in individuals and families and villages of people. Africa is its people. Obviously, the landscapes of the continent are breath-taking and overwhelming, but those spaces mean nothing without the people of Africa, the ancestors of us all regardless of color, language, religion or ethnicity.
There is a tendency in writing about the continent to speak in sweeping generalizations about nature, endless herds of wildlife, stunning vistas and panoramas. While it is true that only superlatives suffice to describe Africa physically, those postcard images don’t convey the pull of Africa, the getting into one’s blood that often happens to people. Africa is truly like a fever in the blood, and there seems to be no cure for that fever. The blood pounds and heats up, and there is nothing the victim can do but surrender to the fever, and be transported back to Africa, in a trance.
The other tendency when writing or thinking about Africa is to focus on the obscene corruption, poverty, famine, warfare, drought, disease and devastation that characterize many countries in the region. Again, only superlatives, albeit negative superlatives in this case, are sufficient. I leave it to others to paint pictures in large, bold, wide brushstrokes on huge canvases. Because of my experiences, I need to work in miniature, with a fine brush under a magnifying glass, perhaps. There will be superlatives, of course, but there will also be intensely private, quiet descriptions. If the fever has its brilliant, overwhelming moments, it also has its seductive side, an almost imperceptible, gradually increasing and intensifying hold on the victim or, as I prefer to describe it now, on the adoptee. Perhaps writing these words is the cure for the fever, or perhaps writing will only heighten the fever’s intensity and persistence.
Whenever I think of Senegal and Africa, what immediately comes to mind in sharp relief, is a village, and a specific compound, or homestead, in that classic, picture postcard village of mud huts with thatched straw roofs. It is the rural village community of Bidiancoto (pronounced “Bee-jan-KO-to”) in rural eastern Senegal, in the interior, away from the coast. It isn’t on most maps, and there is no reason why it should be. There are no tourist sites, no sweeping vistas, no colorful rituals to attract attention. There isn’t even a paved road into the village. It is clearly off the beaten track, if there is any such thing as a beaten track in eastern Senegal, or in West Africa for that matter. You don’t simply stumble upon Bidiancoto on your way someplace else, because it isn’t on the way to anyplace else. Seen from afar, Bidiancoto looks like a typical African village (whatever that is) straight out of National Geographic magazine. But that publication has never sent anyone out there, and probably never will. The allure of Bidiancoto is not its appearance or setting, but its people and the community. No photograph or essay could capture the seductive, intense magic, both positive and negative, of village life. Pictures might convey a sense of the individuals’ features and appearance, but only living there can do justice to the personalities and interactions of villagers and their community. Only words can convey the complexities of what appears on the surface to be a simple village life.
Why this village among the thousands in West Africa, and the hundreds of thousands on the African continent? Why this village among all those in Senegal? The official Peace Corps answer was that it was a rural settlement that desperately needed and wanted basic human services, including water, sanitation, health, education, and anything else to relieve the extremely low standard of living. The Senegalese government had a program in rural development, but its educated and urbanized Senegalese agents didn’t want to work out in the rural areas, especially in the remote, eastern part of the country. The province, officially called “Senegal Oriental” (eastern Senegal) was unofficially but more accurately named “Senegal Oublié” (forgotten Senegal). The Senegalese government, aware that none of its citizens would accept the assignment, requested that an American volunteer be sent to Bidiancoto in Senegal Oriental in 1978. I was that American volunteer.
But why me to this particular village? Here comes one of the most crucial unexplained events of my Senegalese experiences. During training, I had read a brief description from a list of proposed sites and decided that this community called Bidiancoto obviously needed so many basic human services that anything I did would have some impact. It was also the “most remote” village (translated as the furthest from the capital, Dakar) that was to be assigned a volunteer that year. That, mysteriously, appealed to me. If this whole volunteer business were going to work, it was going to work out as far away from “civilization” as possible. If I could survive out there, I could survive anywhere. So sign me up and ship me off for two years. I had come all the way from the USA to “experience” Africa, and if Africa was to be found anywhere, it would be out there, way out there. And Bidiancoto was the farthest out there, at least that year. I had progressed from being hesitant about the whole idea of going to Africa to being almost recklessly determined to get as far away as possible into Africa. Perhaps the place was already having an impact, causing me to immerse myself in the experience, rather than tentatively testing the waters by selecting a “safer” village near the capital, within easy reach of the airport where I could catch a plane back to familiar places and faces.
I was also intrigued that the language spoken in the remote village was something someone called “Peule.” Later I wondered how they (whoever it was) came up with that word to describe the language. It turns out the language was Pulaar (or Fulani or Fula in English-speaking West Africa), a very important language spoken by about ten million people. Here I thought I’d be learning an obscure, dying tongue because no one else in my training group was to study Peule. In fact, no one had ever heard of it, not even the trainee with a bachelor’s degree in African studies. Other volunteers were focusing on Wolof, Senegal’s national language, and various Diola dialects. I was extremely lucky to learn Pulaar and was able to use it to travel all over West Africa. I also used the language in later research, and continue to be amazed at my luck in picking a village that spoke such an important and widespread language. This is only one example of many where Africa turned my expectations completely around, and ultimately for the better.
Of course, once I lived in Bidiancoto, and became part of the everyday life of the village, villagers insisted that Allah, or God, had determined that I come to them. They said that there was nothing surprising or unexplainable or mysterious about my selecting that particular village, because it was all preordained in the will of Allah. It seemed as logical and acceptable an explanation as any that I ever developed.
When I actually looked at a map, with my name on a colored tag pinned to the site of Bidiancoto, I wondered if perhaps I hadn’t been foolish to select a place in the middle of nowhere, two days from the capital by road, most of it unpaved, and miles (and miles) away from any fellow volunteer. What if I got sick? What if I got lonely or just wanted to go to a bookstore in the capital or go swimming or get together with another American? I certainly would find out quickly if this whole volunteer enterprise was going to work out as far away from civilization as it was possible to get, because I was going to be precisely in the middle of nowhere. I wouldn’t be looking at an article in National Geographic: I’d be walking into the article and living there.