Adama taking a well earned break and Moussa inevitably making tea.
I stayed with a local host family and they looked me after very well. The lady of the house was Adama, a quite redoubtable woman. Not only did she run the house single-handedly but she also worked the mornings at a nursery. She would rise every morning at half five and would seemingly be on the go, working, cooking and cleaning until retiring at night. She achieved all this while forever looking strikingly elegant in her always-vibrantly colourful flowing clothes and retaining a sharp sense of humour that she often used to tease me.
It’s fair to say that the man of the house, her husband Moussa, provided something of a contrast to her limitless energy. He had once performed a strenuous job on the now semi-defunct Senegalese railway, but now took life at gentler pace. His retirement was dedicated to two activities, making tea and watching television. The latter was normally carried out sprawled on the living room sofa with the curtains drawn.
However Moussa certainly did his best to make me feel welcome. He gave me a Senegalese name of “Bamba”, the honour and significance of which I only appreciated once I learned about Cheikh Amadou Bamba, and when making tea I was always afforded the respect of receiving the first glass.
Their 15 year-old daughter Fifi also lived in the house. I didn’t have a great deal of interaction with her, she rarely eat with us for some reason. However she could be great fun. In my final week we went on a shopping trip to buy some leaving presents. With her mildly flirtatious nature, and willingness to walk away if the price wasn’t right, she was great to have at your side when bargaining. At one point she was trying on a pair of jeans over her leggings, comedy in itself as they got stuck round her ankles and required assistance to extricate herself from them. In the struggle to free her the shopkeeper asked if I, the foreigner twenty years her senior who was clearly paying, was her husband. Not unreasonably amused by the suggestion she earnestly confirmed to him that I was.
However the family member I had the closest connection to was even younger, ten year old Zall. Short for his age and shy compared to the cocky attitude of some of his contemporaries, he was affectionate and possessing of a rather sweet, wide-eyed naivety. He clearly loved having volunteers in the house and was always terribly pleased to see me. After he taught me the playground style of shaking hands, an elaborate ritual culminating in bumping shoulders, we would always use it to greet each other. I would play football and “tig” with him and his friends on the beach, or he would show me how to catch the small crabs using off casts of the fishermen’s nets. However he never became overbearing, always judging when I would rather read or get on with my schoolwork.
A serious looking Zall
My favourite memory of him was of when we went for a run along the beach together. That he wanted to go running with me spoke of a number of his endearing qualities, that he wanted to be involved with what I was doing and his innocent assumption that he would be able to keep up with me. To be fair, for a 10 year old he did pretty well. I jogged more slowly than normal and he gamely trotted along, having no problems reaching my usual turnaround point after a couple of miles. On the way back he started to flag. Rather than take a rest he asked me to hold his hand so I could pull him along. We must have looked quite a picture, a white man in his mid-thirties hauling a local schoolboy along the beach, but I found it quite touching.
Although he lived with the family it took me a long time to work out exactly what his relationship was as his parents resided in Mauritania, eventually establishing that Adama and his father were cousins. His role in the household was almost like a serf, totally obedient to the adults. He was constantly sent on errands to buy food, cigarettes or other sundry items, as well as acting as the remote control for the television, Moussa being too slovenly to change channels himself. All this was done in a very deferential fashion; the idea of talking back to his elders was unthinkable. They were also very strict about his homework, he was all but banished from the house for only scoring the 4th highest mark in a French dissertation having previous been top of the class.
The other household member I forged a connection with was even younger, Fifi’s three-year-old cousin Abi. Even by the fairly manic standards of children her age she bustled with life. Never far from busting into and infectious laugh, she has a precocious way of carrying herself, sashaying across the room as she moves from one adventure to another. We didn’t have a single word in common, at that age children usually speak only Wolof, but every time I saw her I couldn’t stop laughing. We’d often lapse into a game were she was pretending not to look my way, then I’d turn quickly to catch her out.
Abi and friend
It was locally accepted practise to hit children to discipline them, by which I mean a quick cuff round the ear rather than a serious beating. While most children would be humbled by such a punishment, Abi reacted quite differently. When Moussa tried to give her a light slap she would hit back, fists flying and big smile on her face to show she was enjoying the game. Every time she entered the room there would be an episode of some sort. She would charge round causing some degree of amusement, before inevitably breaking something or falling and hurting herself.
There was a long running joke that I was going to take her back to London with me. It appears to be quite the fashion these days to adopt non-orphaned African children, I did almost feel tempted to follow the lead set by Madonna and French aid agencies and smuggle her back to Putney. When it came to the time of my departure I apologised to the family for not having enough room in my luggage to accommodate her.