by Elise Annunziata (Senegal 1996–99)
The following work was first published at PeaceCorpsWriters.org in November, 2002.
In 2003 it was the winner of the Moritz Thomsen Award for Peace Corps Experience Award.
I HAD SAID SO OFTEN that leaving my Senegalese village, Keur Madiabel, would the most difficult part of my three-year Peace Corps service. Every time a farewell scene crept into my mind, I banished it quickly and vowed to think about it later. But, before I accepted the reality of my departure, “later” was looming over my head and it was time to drive — for the last time — from my village to the regional capital, with a fraction of my original possessions thrown into the backseat of a Peace Corps vehicle.
My last full day
Most of the afternoon on my last day in Keur Madiabel, I spent talking with my adoptive family, Ousmane Thiam, his wife Mame Diediou and their children. Ousmane and I sat outside on two broken wooden-back lawn chairs while he fiddled with the wire antenna of a hand-held radio with speakers that I had given him. We talked about the kids’ education, how I could wire money to him through Western Union (when, God-willing, I got a job and had some money) and the project I wanted to pursue — to publish the poetry and prose of an extraordinary villager, collaborator and friend of mine who had recently died from an unidentified illness.
Mame and I talked while she was ironing, again mostly about the children and which of them was destined for education beyond the 6th grade. Incredibly, I found myself agreeing with her statement that only three of their six children would likely be encouraged in school; I urged her to push the youngest — Kiné, Mbaye and Elise, my 1-1/2 year old namesake. In an another attempt to stress the importance of girls’ education, I also mentioned that I thought the eldest girl, Ndeye Astou, was a very good student — although I suspected the Ndeye’s destiny as the oldest daughter could be to stay in the village and help in the household until she married. Culture prevails, and I’d grown to accept that, although it rarely stopped me from expressing my opinion to my Senegalese friends. I now wonder if anything I’d said or demonstrated, albeit with a certain American optimism and illusion, will have a significant impact on this family or on the teachers and students from eight rural villages with which I had worked.
At the end of my conversation with Mame, she said “Elise is your daughter too, and she belongs to you even if you can’t take her with you to America.” I was stunned to hear those words aloud, even though the “giving” of children to other family members was not uncommon. To me, it was an immeasurable demonstration of love, friendship and acceptance of me as a member of their Senegalese family. It was then that I felt the haze of our cultural differences, which I had fumbled in and out of for three years, was transgressed by our common work, love and humanity.
That evening, Ousmane talked with me for a long time before and after dinner about how he felt I was like a member of the family. He said that when he decided to name his youngest daughter after me, he did so not because he thought I would give them things or that I would bring her to America. It was, he said, because he knew I was human, as they were human, and none of us differentiated between our conditions or ourselves. I ask now, why does the idea that there is nothing more or less human about a white or a black, or an affluent or an illiterate, or a Catholic or a Muslim, or an African or an American seem like an unshakable truth? That last night, sitting in the dark with Ousmane and Mame, I felt truly united in humanity when he said we were “comme des parents” (like family). He thanked me again and told me not to worry about leaving them; we had already formed unbreakable bonds, even if it took me 2 or 5 or 20 years to come back to Senegal.
The children seemed particularly somber, yet still went about his or her tasks. After Ousmane’s speech, Mbaye, the precocious three-year old brother of Elise, kept asking me where I was going, and I felt like he was doing so with an incredible insistence for truth. He knew I was GOING and I couldn’t bring myself to answer him with any reassuring measure in my voice.
After dinner we all sat down to watch “Mari Mar” on television and Ndeye was squeezed next to me on the corner of my chair, as usual. I didn’t follow the show and kept thinking about the fact that I would probably never again be a part of this scene — this comfortable family setting: sitting with a group of African children and adults who considered me something between a sister and an aunt, all crowded around a 12-inch black and white television run off a 12v car battery to watch a cheesy Mexican soap opera dubbed in French. Finally, I went home to my compound around 12:30am and went directly to sleep. I still hadn’t accepted that I was really leaving the next morning.
Time for departure
I woke up at 6:00am — a certain rarity for me, and immediately started to load my truck. Ousmane had sent his older son and nephew to help me. When I left the house where I had lodged for years, I thought it would be fairly easy to say goodbye to my landlords and their family, to which I was not nearly as close as the Thiam’s. But, right at the end, I chocked up so unexpectedly that I hurried the rest of the handshakes and good-byes and jumped in my truck.
When I arrived at Ousmane’s I went inside the house to greet everyone before we started unloading the belongings that I was going to leave behind with the family — my wooden double bed frame, sponge mattress, metal tuna fish can footlocker, double-sized Peach Corps-issued mosquito net, buckets, clothes, pencils, scraps of material and all kinds of small treasures that the kids would find ingenious uses for. Mame hardly looked at me and went into the kitchen.
The event that sticks most in my mind from that day is breakfast. Mame brought me into her and Ousmane’s bedroom and set down a meal of duck, fried potatoes and onion sauce that was left over from our dinner the night before. Elise came in and sat down on her little wooden stool and we ate together. Actually, all I did was pick at the bread. Once I looked at Elise, I felt my throat tighten and my stomach fall into a pit; I couldn’t eat and I just kept crying into my bandana. Though she ate, the 1/1-2 year old watched me and between bites she tentatively called my name, “Khady?” She knew too, I think. When Mame took the breakfast bowl away she didn’t even comment on how little I had eaten.
The rest of the family joined us in the bedroom and we made small talk. Thankfully, Ousmane was there to get me going. He said I shouldn’t linger nor have any ceremony; it was simply time to leave. The children were suddenly quiet. Mame went on arranging the plastic bowls on top of the dresser, keeping her face turned away from me. Ousmane asked me if I had a piece of cloth. All I had was my wet bandana, but he found small strips from another scrap of blue tie-dyed material I had given them. He told me to tie a thin piece of cloth around the wrists of both Mbaye and Elise. I did it, but didn’t need to ask why.
It was the moment to leave. I could barely touch any of them or say anything. Hugging seemed too dramatic and if I had done that, I would have broken the cultural code of restrained, repressed emotion — something I had promised myself I would not do in public. Instead I shook Mame’s hand and looked at her beautiful Diola face for an instant until we both looked down. I touched each child’s face, kissed Ndeye on the head and turned to leave the room. Mame stayed inside with all of the children except Elise, who I was carrying, and Ousmane walked with me to the truck. I met Mame’s sister at the door and shook her hand. She surprised me with a sob and her abrupt retreat back into the room. Finally at the entrance of the compound I quickly shoved Elise back to her father before she had the chance to cling to me as she often did when I left her. I thanked Ousmane and shook his extended left hand — the hand used to wish someone well on a journey and a gesture promising that we would see each other again someday.
As I drove slowly out of the village, I looked, for the last time, at the ancient mahogany trees that lined both sides of the tar road, the sandy fields that were being prepared for the growing season, the electric power lines there were still not connected and the sparse, sublime horizon that had been stripped of almost all green. On the way out, I picked up a villager who wanted a ride to Kaolack, the regional capital where I had packing and writing my close-of-service report to finish. Once past the village limit, I couldn’t hold back any longer. My passenger looked embarrassedly away from my unstoppable flow of tears, and the only I words I spoke for 35km were to ask him to put on his seat belt.
Ousmane Thiam and his family continue to live in the Muslim village of Keur Madiabel, and they remain in frequent contact with the author. Ndeye Astou, the eldest daughter, did not pass her entrance exams last year in order to continue education beyond 6th grade, but Ousmane is encouraging her to try again. The author helps to financially support the education of Elise Thiam, who is now four years old and attending her second year of pre-school in another village.
Immediately after the destructive events of September 11th, the Thiam’s tried for three days to get through the phone lines to the United States. Mame said they “could not sleep or eat until they spoke with [me] to ensure [my] safety and well being.” Recently, the family telephoned the author to express their condolences on the one-year anniversary of September 11th. Ousmane said that they are praying for her, and for America.
(Summer 2005) Elise Annunziata lived in Keur Madiabel for two years working with students and teachers in eight surrounding villages to develop Environmental Education curricula. She extended a third year in Senegal as a Volunteer Leader in Kaolack and also worked as a Peace Corps trainer for the first Environmental Education program in Guinea (Conakry). Now living in Arlington, Virginia, Elise has a Master of Arts in Environmental and Natural Resources from The George Washington University and currently works for the Sierra Club in Arlington.