Playing Telephone in Senegal: Installment #3

Carmen and Kim

Carmen and Kim the last night of the residency.

Ça va? Tu as bien dormi?

Every morning our Senegalese colleagues offered this courteous greeting along with handshakes or hugs. We internationals learned quickly to reciprocate though, if my memory serves me, we were not so consistently courteous with one another.

But the morning of my departure, the morning ritual was dampened down. Many Senegalese had already left the night before. Hector, Marianne, Carmen, Antonio, Tiel, and Kim–who all had several days before flying home–took off early in the company of Dame to visit the Saloum Delta National Park. Jamillah and I were headed to Dakar.

Angelo had told me how to catch a ride and transfer and transfer to get to Dakar and we enlisted Thierno (who was not in a hurry to say goodbye to Jamilah) to accompany us so we could figure it out.

Thierno and Jamillah

But Diol said he would arrange transportation.

Arrangements got complicated. In the meantime, we were out of safe drinking water. The only CFA (Central African francs) I had were in large denominations and I knew the little corner stores would not be able to make change. (Which would also have been true of the public buses and vans.)

Maybe this is the time to talk about money for anyone planning to go to Senegal. The currency is pegged to the euro, so I knew to bring euros rather than dollars, and I was told I could use my ATM card to withdraw francs directly from ATMs which I would find in Dakar, but most likely not in the village. But in Dakar, when I arrived, the banks were closed and my attempts to use ATMs were failures. I only learned at the very end of the trip that ATMs and the few places that do accept credit cards only accept cards that meet the European standard with an embedded chip. Which my cards did not have. (A few days after my return to the US, what should come in the mail but a replacement card complete with chip.) I would have been entirely stuck if I hadn’t been able to borrow francs from Hector and change some euros with Angelo. But, what to do with 10,000 CFA bills?

Jamilah and I headed to one of the small restaurants on the beach. Chez Baby always did good business so I thought there would be change. The owners were used to us. Here’s Hector at Chez Baby with an imperialist Coca-Cola.

hector witih phone

Be back in an hour, Diol warned. Well, there wasn’t any change but the employee in charge agreed to go look for some and let me have a soda. We waited and waited. She was unable to find change but agreed I could send money back to her via Thierno. At that point, I was afraid to ask for another drink.

J & I headed back for the house but by then I was dehydrated and disoriented and somehow we managed to walk right past the usual landmarks — the house up on the cliff with the white spiral stairs heading to the beach,

dog and spiral staircase

the kindergarten next door

kindergarten next door

and the house and continue north for at least a mile. Every now and then I commented on how interesting the rock formations were and how I’d never noticed them before.

By the time we turned around, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen how far we’d gone astray. Densely populated stretches of fishermen family homes, men out on the boats, (not like the lonely unused pirogue that outside our house)


children who–unlike the kids who were used to us who would run up to hold our hands and want kisses–glared at us and called out Toubab, the West African word for a European, or white person, or stranger who is presumed to be rich; kind of like Sahib in India. (I had asked at one point about the origin of Toubab Dialaw, the name of the village. Dialaw reminded me enough of diable that I wondered if we were staying in White Devil. Dialaw turned out to be the name of that particular geographic area and the Toubab part refers to the history when Europeans began frequenting the area to trade.)

I was dead on my feet when we got back to the house. It was another couple of hours before we had a car and I didn’t reach Angelo’s till 5:30. And I can’t thank him enough. On top of playing matchmaker between ImaginAction and Yaddu Karaax so that the residency could happen, I took full advantage of his hospitality–a couple of nights on his couch, his help navigating, plus conversation and insight, and another loan!

In the morning, Jamilah, Thierno, Adama (who’d gone on ahead to Dakar before us) and I met at the ferry dock for the boat to Gorée Island.

boarding ferry

No drumming allowed.

no drumming on ferry

on board
The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and largely known to Americans because of its role in the slave trade. US Presidents on African trips have to visit. But if Jamilah and I thought this would be a sort of pilgrimage, it’s not quite that at all. The UNESCO designation has more to do with the preservation of the colorful colonial buildings and streets that could easily have been lifted directly from France.


The island makes a pleasant excursion from the dust of Dakar for groups of schoolchildren and regular folks.

Goree seen from ferry


cargo unloaded at Goree

There’s an artists colony, people showing paintings and assemblage work, handcrafts. Little restaurants by the water.

Thierno and Adama led us first to the island’s museum housed in the old fort. (Thierno was annoyed that the Americans were charged extra to visit Gorée and argued that all people are equal regardless of color or nationality, but to me, it’s fair for foreigners to contribute in this way to the upkeep.)

Jamilah and I didn’t realize we were going to see exhibits about the neolithic and paleolithic eras and about Europeans in the region. The exhibits got interesting to me once we moved into the era of resistance, in large part because Adama now had a lot to say.

There were two forms of resistance, armed and cultural with the cultural resistance based on Koranic teachings. He pointed out the picture of a young woman who is a Senegalese hero. She organized exploited Senegalese to go on strike instead of serving European masters. She was arrested and exiled. Adama said violent resisters when caught were executed; nonviolent were sent away, I think usually to Gabon, to break their power and influence without martyring them or causing retaliatory unrest.

There were photographs showing the lineage and genealogy of prominent marabouts. In Senegal, overwhelmingly Muslim, Sufi Islam predominates and that means fervent worship combined with respect and tolerance for other traditions. There seems to be no sectarian tension. People usually belong to what I guess we would call a brotherhood or sodality or–Adama used the word family–led by a particular holy guide, or marabout, whose role is passed down father to son. Adama belongs to the family of Khalifa Ababacar Sy whose portrait hangs in his room. (Also note mosquito net tied up when not in use.)

Adam with picture of

He was also happy to point out the picture of the Khalifa when we saw it that afternoon in a taxi cab.

marabout in cab

Adama is also working on a play about another marabout from a different family tradition who is respected throughout the country. The marabouts have a lot of influence in the community and therefore also with the government.

I remember reading a Sufi book many years ago that talked about fountains springing up at different places all over the world and people drinking from these fountains and recognizing them as Truth but also having to know that all these fountains came up from the same deep river under the earth. The way people talked about belief seemed to go very much with this idea.

We went to the top of the fort and there and elsewhere on the island visited the centuries-old cannons.

Thierno and cannon
Finally, to the Maison des Esclaves. The dungeon cells where people were kept. The even more cramped spaces for the “Recalcitrants” which made me think of solitary confinement in California prisons. The so-called Door of No Return which at this location most likely was not actually the space through which people were forced onto the slave ships.

Maison des Esclaves

I understand this house hasn’t the scale or intensity of horror of the massive slave-trade fortresses in Ghana, but in a way it was particularly horrifying to see the small-scale normalization of keeping human beings like livestock and selling them–if they survived the conditions–to potential buyers an ocean away. Here was a lovely little French village, comfortable little homes, and underneath most likely every pleasant house, people held in brutal captivity.

pleasant scene

(Which makes me think of the eastern seaboard of the US where so many fortunes were made through the crime but most traces of the past have been erased.)

Nearby, this statue represents Liberation.


After lunch,

lunch at goree


we boarded the ferry to return to Dakar.

ferry passengers

harbor birds

people waiting to board

Waited nearby the docks

stalls near docks

for a bus like this one

Dakar bus

and grabbed a cab when we were tired of waiting and headed for the northern suburb where Adama lives with his grandmother.
It was truly an honor that he invited us home to meet her.

Adama and his grandmothe

at home of Adama's grandmere

We had accompanied him in order to watch a rehearsal of new work-in-progress by his theater company. (Sorry, no photos.) First we visited the room he rents near his grandmother’s house, a place to go for privacy and solitude when he is working on a script.

Then the home of his friend, a member of the company.

friend with drum

at home of Adama's friend

On the way to rehearsal, some kids on a rooftop found us very amusing.

kids on roof

And I saw my name painted on a wall.


Well, no. Turns out everyone thought my name was spelled Dayanne. The word Diane, pronounced Djan in Wolof, means Serpent. Yay!


We also had the honor of meeting M. Gueye Ndiaye, percussionist and griot who has performed with Youssou N’dour and taken his music and workshops, especially for at-risk youth, to many cities in Europe. He invited us into his home in the neighborhood where he has created and supported community education and culture programs and is the great benefactor of Adama’s theater company.

I think I mentioned in a previous installment that Adama’s company is called SantiYAllah, or Thanks be to Allah. They began and ended their rehearsal with prayer. So it was particularly interesting that Adama explained that while he is respectful of his religion and culture, these don’t belong onstage. There’s no place for God onstage in theater. Maybe, at most, God can be in the audience, but theater is about the feelings and thoughts of human beings, freely expressed.

(I hope I’m expressing this accurately. By this time, I was exhausted and my shaky French even shakier!)

I had seen a video of a play of his, one that he was invited to take to Ravenna, Italy by a Senegalese theater artist who was an immigrant there, Mandiaye Ndiaye, who became his mentor. (Ndiaye died several months ago and Adama would now like to continue studying with Hector.) The production was gorgeous. Much of the dialogue was spoken in chorus by the men on one side, women on the other, in perfect synchrony. Individuals would stop forward to play out particular scenes. The production incorporated music and dance. (At the risk of sounding like an idiot, let me say the work is original and African but I want to describe it as a powerful mix of ancient Greek drama and Bollywood.)

Anyway, I loved the rehearsal. The company warmed up in a circle with very vigorous running and fast, sure ensemble movement to the beat of a drum. They are all dancers so in great shape. The new piece stunned me. Our last day together Hector had facilitated an exercise of men against women. One group would advance on the other with violent or insulting gestures, up to a dividing line, where that group would be driven back. Advance and retreat, advance and retreat, until Hector told us to change to seductive, welcoming or loving gestures. In this way, we transformed vigorous action from hostility to affectionate connection. That was just a couple of days ago, and Adama had already used some of that action, some of the visual imagery, for a piece about marriage.

Then came a new piece he said I had inspired with an exercise I led. But this one was almost all dialogue, and in Wolof, so when Adama put me on the spot and asked for a critique I was entirely at a loss. I was moved that something I’d offered had inspired him and very sorry to let him down by being unable to comment. Jamillah stepped into the breach and asked a question. (Thank you.)

It was hard to say goodbye, and with Adama worried as in the middle of all this he received a call that his beloved mother was in the hospital. I write this now hoping she is recovered and well.

Adam and rocksthank you for your friendship.

Jërejëff to everyone who made this trip so inspiring. To Hector (of course) and to Diol and Angelo, seen here conferring.

Diol and Angelo conferring

And it’s hard to come to the end of these posts, knowing how much I’ve left out, how much I gained, how much I failed to understand. I hope Moustapha Seck will further enlighten me!

Here we are (most of us) when the residency was at its height.

our group

Now the house is empty.

boys at the open door

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