by Carrie Knowlton (Senegal 1999-01)
You can fall in love with a person, but you can also fall in love with moments in time, the sounds of drums on the beach, and roosters crowing while women pound millet at dawn. You can fall in love with the way the Atlantic Ocean smells at sunset and the way all those things come together to become your memory of a place. After two and a half years living in Senegal while serving in the Peace Corps, I was smitten.
Senegal is that bump that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean just below the Sahara desert on the western-most tip of Africa. There is a beach in the capital, Dakar, where you can sit and eat a plate of fish and rice, watch the sunset, and listen to drumming and the call to prayer. The country is 92% Muslim and French is the official language, but there are more than thirty local languages spoken throughout the country. While serving in the Peace Corps, I lived in a tiny village called Niaoulen-Tanou where I learned Pulaar, a traditionally nomadic language spoken all over West Africa. I loved Niaoulen, but it was hard. I craved electricity and plumbing, cheese and raspberries, and feeling cold once in a while. I hadn’t left the continent in over two years and was eager to go home, but was planning to spend some time in Morocco and Europe on the way. I was excited about this, however, when I told my Senegalese friends and host family about my plans, they thought I was crazy. To a Senegalese person being alone and away from your family is unthinkable. In Senegal, there is a concept called teranga, which means when you meet a stranger you treat them like family. You feed and take care of them until it is time for them to go on the road again. Teranga can be loosely translated as hospitality, but it means so much more than that; teranga is a basic foundation of Senegalese culture. So, when I told my friend, Hamidou, about my plans, he thought it sounded like a terrible idea but told me that if I got lonely and I missed Senegal and needed some teranga, I could call his brother, Soori, in Madrid. Hamidou’s mother got very excited about this and asked me if she could send a small gift for Soori. Very small. Just a cadeau tosooko, the tiniest of gifts. I reluctantly agreed.
On my last day in my village, we had a huge party and I cried and cried. Women danced and brought me peanut butter, meat, yogurt, and many, many chickens. I turned them all down, explaining that I couldn’t fit these items in my backpack and take them on an airplane. Then Hamidou’s mom came with her cadeau tosooko, which turned out to be a giant plastic bag filled with 20 pounds of lacciri. Lacciri is millet that has been pounded by hand, dried in the sun, and rolled into little balls, kind of like couscous. She must have seen the horrified look on my face because she quickly explained that Soori couldn’t get good lacciri in Spain. It wouldn’t be that heavy and she was sure her son would cook some for me; I would be so happy to eat it after carrying it so far. I wanted to say no, but she and her family had shown me so much teranga and she was so persistent. I gave in, although we negotiated that I would take only half of it, which was still ten pounds of millet I would be carrying in my backpack for the next three weeks until I got to Madrid.
I said goodbye and went to Morocco with some friends and after parting ways with them I took a ferry by myself from Algiers to Spain. When I arrived, I was utterly and completely alone. I thought I was going to arrive in Madrid and take a hot shower, eat tapas and drink wine, and have a romance with some Austrian mountain man. Instead, I got on an escalator for the first time in two years, became overwhelmed by the variety of hams, cheeses, and wines available on the menu, and locked myself in the hotel room for 24 hours. My Senegalese friends were right. I was very much in need of teranga. I took a hot shower and called Soori. He was a poor immigrant who lived in a crowded apartment, and he turned out to be very difficult to reach. This was in the days before cell phones and each time I called, one of his many roommates told me that Soori would call me back. He never did.
After 36 hours, spent mostly in the hotel room, it was time to say adios to Spain.
I gathered my belongings, which still included ten pounds of dried millet. I took the lacciri out of my backpack and thought about throwing it away, but I just couldn’t do it. It was the one thing that kept me still firmly connected to the land of teranga. I was on my way to London to visit a friend – maybe I would try to cook it for her. I put it back in my pack and left for the train station.
After a long night on the train I arrived in Paris and felt a little more at home. My French is terrible, but after two years in West Africa it was more familiar to me than Spanish. It was 2001, one year before the Euro, and I had about $20 worth of pesetas and some traveler’s cheques. With one hour to spare before my train to London departed at 8 a.m., I thought I could buy a croissant and a cafe au lait. I looked around for somewhere to change money into francs, but all the Bureaus de Change were closed. My stomach was growling, but I decided I could wait to eat until London. I looked around for my train but didn’t see “London” on the boards. I dug out my Eurostar ticket and showed it to a nice looking French woman.
“Ou est le Eurostar?”I asked. She looked at me with pity and pointed at the ticket where it said, “Gare du Nord.” We are at the Gare de Lyon, she explained. The Gare du Nord is five kilometers away.
I was at an entirely different train station. I had no map, no money, and a backpack full of dry millet. And the planning ahead that I had previously been so proud of was about to be wasted because I was going to miss my train. I started missing Senegal even more, because in Senegal there are no schedules. You just go to the station and wait until someone is ready to take you somewhere, and then you go. It isn’t efficient, but it is certainly simpler.
I left the station to see if I could walk. I asked a couple of people in my terrible French where the Gare du Nord was but they pointed in opposite directions. I tried to explain that I was lost, had only pesetas and needed a taxi and was about to miss my train. The French people, with little patience for my terrible command of their language were politely but quickly on their way. I wandered around, looking for a bank, and then, suddenly, I spotted a tall African woman, with her hair in tight, expertly woven braids. She wore an indigo batik and a long, tightly wrapped skirt. She had to be Senegalese. To confirm my belief I went up and asked “Vous etes d’ou?”
She looked at me with the weary expression of someone who has humored too many people thinking that Africa is a country instead of a gigantic, diverse continent. “Je suis Africain,” she said. I took this for code: “I’m not going to get into this with you right now.”
“Qu’elle pays, Senegal?” I persisted.
Her face softened a bit. “Oui.”
“A nani Pulaar?” I ventured, hoping she spoke a language that I could actually communicate in besides French.
Her eyes widened. “Eey, ko mi Pulo,” she replied. Yes, I am Pulaar. So I explained my predicament. She told me her name was Aissatou, and she had lived in France for four years and hated it. She cleaned houses for a living and missed Senegal terribly. She had never met a Toubab, or white person, who spoke Pulaar, and had definitely never met a white person who seemed more lost in Paris than she ever did.
Aissatou grabbed me by the hand and took me to four different Lebanese groceries, negotiating the way she would at a market in Dakar to find someone who would change my pesetas into francs. It came at a price. My $20 of pesetas turned into $10 of francs, which she did not think would get me to the Gare du Nord. It was almost 7:30 a.m. and time was running out. She offered to give me the extra money. I refused, but she insisted.
Standing on a street corner in Paris, I suddenly remembered I had ten pounds of lacciri in my bag. I pulled it out and gave it to Aissatou. When she opened up her thank you gift she laughed so hard that she was crying. I was laughing too, because it was the most ridiculously perfect thing that could have happened to either of us. Parisians were turning around to look at what this disheveled American girl and perfectly coiffed Senegalese woman could be laughing about in the streets of Paris in the early morning hours. I took Aissatou’s money and address so I could pay her back. Because she is full of teranga, Aissatou insisted on waiting with me for a taxi.
The taxis kept passing us by.
Aissatou quietly informed me that she thought I would get a taxi more quickly if we weren’t standing together. She stepped back a bit and a taxi instantly pulled over. We hugged. I thanked her and we laughed again about the lacciri. The taxi driver looked confused.
I caught my train to London and slowly readjusted to life in the developed world. Aissatou and I even exchanged a few postcards. I repaid her, and she invited me over for lacciri the next time I was in Paris. I have since lost touch with her, but I still think often of the teranga she showed me, even in a land where she was a stranger, herself. I can never truly repay her hospitality, but in this time of mistrust for immigrants, refugees, and Islam, I try to channel her teranga and extend it to weary travelers I meet in this country, as well.
After returning from Senegal (and Paris), Carrie went back to her hometown of Kalamazoo and became a public health nurse. She then worked with moms and babies in Baltimore, Denver, and Michigan, and returned to Africa in 2014 to teach nursing at Lira University College in Uganda as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. Today, she lives in Denver, Colorado and works as a nurse with an HIV prevention project at the Children’s Hospital.
“Teranga” was first published in Immigration & Justice For Our Neighbors an anthology published by Justice For Our Neighbors-Kalamazoo in April 2017. A shorter version of this essay appears on the Peace Corps website.