The early morning air meets me abruptly. I never thought I’d feel cold in this country. “Well, the day that I’m cold here has arrived,” I think to myself, shivering in my sandals and light clothing, wishing for some socks and a blanket.
When was the last time I was up at 4am? “Mother, I’m tiring you,” I say to Ndey Ndiaye, my host mother. “It’s no trouble,” she replies. And I don’t insist, as bad as I feel for wrecking her sleep, because I’ve started learning to recognize how love is shown in this culture. I know she has a cold thanks to the Harmattan dust which has been swirling with a vengeance the last few days, that she went to sleep late last night after making dinner and cleaning up, that she starts work at 7am today. Part of me wants to beg her to go back to bed and sleep. But I know it’s no use. And the other part of me craves the love she is showing me and accepts it gladly. By waking before dawn, sitting outside in the cold, and waiting with me for my transportation, Ndey Ndiaye is honoring me as her guest and showing me love like she would her own child.
I turn my head to wipe the tears. What I really want to do is openly weep and show her the sadness that I feel in leaving her home, the sadness that is mixed with joy at receiving so much from her family in a mere six weeks. I want to cry and tell her all these things verbally, like I would in my home culture, and be sure that she understands.
The tears have been frequent as I think of leaving the Ndiaye family and the town where they live. And yet, I don’t feel that I can cry openly. I am living in a culture where sutura is a high value. Sutura can be translated as “discretion,” but it is so much more than what that word conjures up in English and in American culture. Sutura is the reason husbands and wives here don’t show affection publicly. Sutura is why I don’t hear my host parents verbally tell their children that they love them. One simply doesn’t hear emotions talked about or shown very often, though the emotions are very much coursing in subtle ways. So as I tell people that I’m leaving and try to control my own spilling out of sadness, I see in their faces that ever-present smile that covers a multitude of unexpressed sentiments, eyes downcast avoiding contact with my own, a Wolof blessing quick to be uttered.
What do I know of prolonged living with a national family, immersed in a language and culture not my own? My stay with the Ndiaye family has been short. “One and a half months with you was not enough,” I’d been telling them, completely sincere and hoping that they believed it. What do I know of the challenges that come in living with a family here for years? Maybe it has not been long enough to traverse an initial “honeymoon phase.” Maybe I’ve created in my mind a false closeness out of a desire for relationships here. Or maybe the Ndiayes were simply the answer to a prayer that has been in my heart since before I arrived in the country.
That’s what I told them, in my broken Wolof, a couple evenings before. I was able to find out from experienced missionaries living in the same town that a culturally appropriate way to say thanks before one leaves is to have a tagatoo (a party thrown by the one leaving), providing everything for a really nice meal. So that’s what we did. Aida, my host sister who’d become a sweet friend, accompanied me on a major shopping expedition (which included two live chickens and all kinds of other “splurge” items like fruit, pickles, olives, vermicelli pasta, cookies, and sodas). When Ndey Ndiaye saw all that I’d bought, she said, “Yacine, you’re tiring yourself with all these expenses! It’s too much.” I told her it was small next to all that they’d done for me, that it was worth all the expenses to say thank you. As we prepared the meal all afternoon and into the evening, I hoped that all of it was communicating to them my love and appreciation.
The time to eat came. Ndey Ndiaye had arranged a platter of food more beautiful than I’d ever seen here, and I managed to tell her so. I sat inside with her, Papa Ndiaye my host father, his friend Tonton Dieng, and Feluine Fall (a friend of Ndey Ndiaye’s and the local pastor’s wife who’d arranged this home-stay for me in the first place). I realized after sitting down that I was the only “non-adult” eating with them. My host siblings, even Jiby the eldest who is older than me, were all eating together outside. I panicked, wondering if I’d just committed some major cultural faux pas. But as the conversation evolved around the meal, I decided that even if I was culturally out of place, I wanted to be sitting with them. They talked about what a wonderful guest I’d been. I was thankful for Feluine’s presence as she responded, talking about what wonderful hosts I’d told her they’d been (and doing so in her native-speaker Wolof and cultural-insider grasp of the situation). I saw my opportunity to finally attempt expressing some of what was in my heart. So I told them that since I’d arrived in the country, I’d been praying for a family like them, that God had answered my prayer by bringing me to live with them. And I spoke a couple Wolof blessings, asking God to bless and repay them.
The week leading up to this cold, early morning has been filled with moments of soaking up the Ndiayes’ expression of love and trying to show them my love in the ways that will communicate to them. And so I linger a bit longer around the meal bowl, I don’t turn down any rounds of ataya, I stay up later than normal sitting with my host sisters on their bed watching random television programs. Unless I have something pressing to do in my free time, I prefer to sit with Ndey Ndiaye even if we’re not doing or saying anything. At meals, I push the crispy rice into the section of the bowl where my eight-year-old host sister Binta sits, knowing that’s her favorite part. I’m used to receiving the best fish or meat pieces from Ndey Ndiaye and Aida. But when Papa Ndiaye does this for me my last dinner, I hardly know whether to smile or cry. I’ve never seen him do that, it’s not his job as the father. He tells me to call them when I’ve arrived safely the next day. “Dinaa ko def,” I respond (“I will do it”). And I wonder to myself if calling your folks when you’ve safely arrived is a cultural universal.
As my body shivers in the early morning breeze and as I dread the imminent parting, my heart is lightened a bit as I replay the countless happy moments over the past six weeks with Ndey Ndiaye, Papa Ndiaye, Jiby, Aida, Awa, and Binta. My mind jumps to the conversation with Feluine the previous day. She told me that her heart was cold with me, immediately catching my attention. I’d learned this Wolof phrase, the way one expresses pride or happiness in someone. It was the day after the tagatoo and the time to say goodbye to Feluine. She told me that her heart was cold with me, that I’d been a good witness among the Ndiayes and that I’d helped the ministry here. She was talking about the church that literally bumps up against the walls of this Muslim family’s house. The sound of Jesus being worshiped is heard in their courtyard. My host sisters sometimes sing the songs throughout the week. Several church members, like Feluine, have close relationships with the Ndiayes. Especially next to their tireless and endless ministry efforts, I don’t know how my short six weeks of improving my Wolof by living with the Ndiayes could make much difference. Feluine’s words humble me. I’m inspired all the more to keep praying for this family which has become so dear to me.
I’m jerked back to the cold present by my cell phone ringing. It’s the taxi driver, saying he is close but unfamiliar with the area. And now my host father is also out of bed in the pre-dawn and going out to the road to look for the taxi and guide the driver to the house. And again, I feel torn. Part of me is embarrassed that my elder is doing the work that I feel I should do since I’m the one taking the taxi. But the other part of me is moved to more tears at this display of love that has been rare during my six weeks of knowing Papa Ndiaye. A man of few words and a hard worker, Papa Ndiaye provides for his family and makes sure that they don’t lack anything that is in his power to earn. But he also perfectly fills the role of a male in this culture — he waits for his wife and daughters to do for him and would never do for his children what they are capable of doing themselves. Yet, because I am his guest, he has taken it upon himself to go out and find my taxi for me.
I take one last look in the room that has been my home for the past six weeks. One last check. Did I get everything? How many times have I performed this parting ritual in recent years? More times than I can count. Maybe that isn’t healthy, I wearily wonder. Or am I richer for the number of places and all the people to whom I’ve said hello and then goodbye? Somehow I thought I’d settle down once I got to the field. I’ll soon come up on a year here, and I still don’t know where my place is. As much as I’d love to stay here and as good of a place as it is for short-term Wolof learning, the nature of my organization’s work prevents me from living here long-term. Have my circumstances in recent years, and now here, kept me from settling down? Or has my rootlessness been a result of my own choices and preferences? These thoughts aren’t new; they return as they usually do as I glance at a now almost empty room. But today the thoughts don’t linger because it’s too early for such musings, and I don’t need any additional emotion triggers right now. And because the taxi driver is now outside the Ndiaye house.
All the bags are in. Now I just have to get in. Now I just have to say the final goodbye. My host mother and father stand next to each other facing me. I’ve never seen them, just the two of them together, this way, making the moment feel that much more significant for some reason. Ndey Ndiaye blesses me, saying, “May God put you on the path of peace.” All I can say is repeated thank yous. I hardly ever shake Papa Ndiaye’s hand; many practicing Muslim men here never shake women’s hands. But now he makes a tentative motion as if to shake my hand. So I put out my hand, and he takes it. I care less about whether or not this was culturally appropriate because, in this moment and in the absence of a hug, I just want to make my parting thanks physical in some way. I know I can shake Ndey Ndiaye’s hand, and after doing so, I do what I’ve seen done only twice before. “Indil sa benneen loxo bi,” I tell her (“Give me your other hand”). And so we shake left hands, breaking the taboo of only using one’s right hand to greet and give things to others. Papa Ndiaye energetically agrees, saying, “Waaw!” Ndey Ndiaye says, “Yes that’s what the Wolof say.” (“So that you won’t forget it,” was the explanation given to me the first time someone did that to me.) And then, with final thank yous I climb into the taxi and let the driver shut the door.
For the first time today, I’m thankful for the early departure hour. In the dark, I silently shed the tears I’ve been bottling up. One’s emotions are rarely explainable. I don’t understand the sadness I’m feeling at leaving the Ndiayes, nor the great pleasure it was for me to be part of their family. I was not with them that long. I only interacted with them in my third language, Wolof, which still feels so constrictive in what I can express and understand. What did I have in common with the Ndiayes that might explain the love that has grown in me for them? Certainly not language, religion, or culture. As I wonder at this, I can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the household I’ve just left, where I’m known and looked after, and the taxi I’m now sitting in, where I’m anonymous and only exchange brief greetings with the driver and passengers.
It’s the anonymity that becomes such a burdensome weight during one’s first year in a new country. At least that has been my experience. To be known here is a rare jewel. To be known by the people whose language I want to learn, the people whom I desperately need in order to understand this new culture, the people whom I long to know, is even rarer. The Ndiayes know me. They know I like vegetables and make sure I get those pieces in the ceebu jen. They know when I’m sick, not because I talk about it, but because they notice I’m more tired and that I’m sniffling. They know when I haven’t understood what was said in Wolof, and they know how to repeat it slowly or explain it until I have. It’s a kind of knowing that may not seem incredibly “deep” yet which makes a huge difference in my day-to-day life where all is unfamiliar. Having people who know me in this way is permitting me to find my feet and my way in this country. But here in the taxi, I’m anonymous. I’ll take it for now, for the sake of a culturally inappropriate, though needed, emotional release.
And as I gaze out the taxi window at the early morning signs of life here in a town I’ve grown fond of, as we make our way south back to the giant capital city and the familiar sense of stress and of being lost in the crowd — I realize that everything looks a little different. The Ndiayes have recolored this country for me. The women sitting with their produce and wares to sell in the market, waiting for public transportation, have become heroes in my eyes. Any one of them could be an Ndey Ndiaye, and now I’ve seen their world day in and day out, I know the care they reserve for their children and husbands despite tiring work. I know that each of those women, though total strangers to me, is the backbone of a family here. The apprentis and other young men I have to interact with in passing, who may be curt or even rude with me, have become slightly more tolerable. Any of them could be a Jiby Ndiaye, the oldest in his family who is trying to bring home his meager contribution, a big brother whose love for his younger siblings is even disguised in merciless teasing and bossing around. I now know better how to respond as a young woman from spending time with Aida Ndiaye and watching her admirable example — staying relaxed, laughing off as much as possible, being firm and demanding respect when necessary. Now, when I happen upon the occasional grumpy taxi driver, I don’t just see him. He could be a Papa Ndiaye. I see the family for whom he is working to provide in a dry economy, probably working beyond the retirement he’s rightfully earned simply out of necessity.
After my first few months here, as I was struggling to enjoy and find beauty in this new country, a wise colleague told me that the beauty in this country is in its people. Another wise friend told me that learning a language is a healing process. I couldn’t agree more with both, especially since my weeks in the Ndiaye home. Trying to live in a new place, unable to communicate at my desired level and with limited contact with the country’s beautiful people, had left me feeling broken. But a little more confidence in Wolof and the beauty of the Ndiayes began a healing process in me.
Though I can’t keep living with the Ndiayes, I know I’m better for the time I was with them. I’m also all the more motivated to live with a family like theirs when I get to a more permanent place. And after all, it’s comforting that I’ll be able to visit the Ndiayes, which I plan to do.
I’m proud to now go by Yacine Ndiaye. And I think I’m going to be okay here.