From Ghana’s capital, Accra, we flew in the evening to Dakar, Senegal aboard ARIK AIR, the Nigerian national airline. We arrived early the next morning where Lizzy, Joe’s goddaughter, met us at the airport and negotiated a cab ride for us to a nearby hotel.
Dakar is a seaside city of about four million people on a peninsula that is the westernmost tip of Africa. Its official language is French, reflecting its colonial history, and in appearance, it seems more developed than Ghana. However, it is a thoroughly African city with sprawling outdoor markets, colorfully painted van buses with passengers hanging out the back doors, and swarms of compact yellow taxis all of which compete with one horse carts that share the streets.
The Senegalese people are slender, decidedly taller than Ghanaians and beautiful in appearance. They speak many local dialects and are majority Muslim by religion. Mosques abound in the cities and dot the landscape of towns and villages. The Catholic presence is evident, but not ostentatious. With minarets announcing the Muslim call to prayer before dawn and throughout the day, I completely felt at home. It reminded me of my extended experience in Jerusalem three years ago.
Our first day was spent in Dakar. We visited two large open-air markets, so typical on the African scene. Vendors not only try to lure you into their stalls, but use ultra-persuasive tactics. For example, one young man approached us and when I shared that I was hoping to find some African folk art, he insisted on leading us. We followed him down dark alleys and corridors into a three-story dark building of mostly fabric shops. We passed many rooms where women and children toiled at sewing machines in claustrophobic and sweltering conditions. It reminded me of the origin of the expression, “sweatshop.” After much negotiation, I purchased a small wood carving of the Virgin Mary that bears Senegalese traits and reflects Islam’s respect for Mary. Once the sale was made, the young man ceased to accompany us, his mission accomplished.
The next day, our only full day in Senegal and the purpose of our visit, was spent riding to the village where Lizzy is performing her Peace Corps volunteer service. The name of the village is Yerago, a name which means “You can drink here!” We hired a taxi for the entire day and made our way south along the coast to the delta in the Fantik region. On the way, Lizzy coached us in some greeting words in the Sareer Safen language of her village. Greetings and salutations are elaborate and she explained that the villagers have the custom of kidding each other with colorful insults, most of which I dare not repeat.
We had to take a car ferry to cross the wide delta river and for the last ten miles of the two hundred mile journey was on sandy dirt roads. This was a scenic ride through a rural forest that included stately baobab trees, herds of Brahmin cattle and goats. Women and children were cutting firewood under the African sun in the dusty dry heat. We even saw a large ground monkey along the way and Lizzy told us that hyenas patrol the area, especially at night.
We arrived at Yerago, a village of approximately 40 adults and 100 children and went to the host family’s compound where Lizzy’s one room hut stands. According to African custom, everyone in a village has to belong to a family and know the protection of a father. Her “father” is the village chief and we were immediately introduced to him, her “mother,” “grandmother” and “brothers and sisters.” For the next two hours, we walked through the village as Lizzy introduced us to members of her extended family and persons she has come to cherish. A growing group of small children followed us forming a lively entourage. Under a stately tree there was a gathering of women including the one Catholic person in the village. I made the gift of a rosary to her and was rewarded with many hugs and beaming smiles.
Because is it the season of Ramadan around the world, Muslims fast from all food and drink from sunup to sundown. For this reason we were not treated to a meal which surely would have been set out before us. In this village and throughout much of tribal Africa, the family eats from a common bowl or pot with their right hands. We didn’t have the pleasure of this experience and unfortunately had to leave before the evening Ramadan break of fast. We would have been offered a feast of goat or mutton along with vegetables and some rice or pounded starch, all cooked into a stew.
I’ll share a word about our young taxi driver, Abdai. As a practicing Muslim, he has to fast from food and drink during the daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. In the stifling heat, we passengers snacked and hydrated ourselves with large bottles of water, but our driver took nothing. Before leaving the village, he took a jug of water from the trunk of the taxi and washed himself – his face, hands, arms and feet – in accord with the ritual requirements that precede prayer. Partway on our return journey, he stopped, took his prayer rug out of the trunk and then facing Mecca, or his own sect’s sacred shrine, prayed for about ten minutes. Not only was I impressed by his devotion, but I was grateful that he was connected to the Almighty. Driving in Africa is so intense that having God as your “copilot” is not only a blessing, but a requirement!
At the end of our day back in Dakar, we celebrated in a Catholic way a decidedly non-Muslim end to the day’s fast with pizza and beer. The next morning before our departure for home, Lizzy came to breakfast with us accompanied by Daniel, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer from Kansas. He serves two remote Senegalese villages also working with the locals on agricultural projects. After farewells, we arrived at the airport in plenty of time and were unexpectedly treated to Delta’s Sky Priority Lounge. I bit into one of the complimentary baguette sandwiches and found it delicious. However, I couldn’t identify the source of the meat. It tasted a bit like chicken but had the texture of pork. It couldn’t have been pork for it is not served in Muslim Senegal. It sure wasn’t beef either. So then I concluded that it was mutton! I am really going to be missing Africa.