The Millennium Village
I had travelled all day from the nearest town knowing little of my task save that I had been asked to visit with a council in the village. This Senegalese village looked like many of the poor African villages I had visited: grassless, airless, the fields and houses colourless and unrevealing so that someone who did not know better might assume nothing had happened there for centuries.
When we pulled up in front of the community centre, moonlight was beginning to flush the sky over the dark slant of the corrugated iron roof. I stepped out of the car. Tires screeched. Then I was alone, staring at one hopeful rectangle of light falling into the night where the door of the place stood ajar.
As I walked toward that sight of a little life and warmth, stones, damp with dew, complained beneath my feet. The bloodthirsty drone of mosquitoes came up like a song from the corners of the yard. I heard a frog burping away in a wheelbarrow near the veranda. Then, suddenly, a woman appeared against the light of the doorway. She wore a simple blue dress and a warm, unforced smile. This, I supposed, was Mrs. Binoush Boye, the woman I had spoken to earlier that day after calling her cousin’s cell phone.
Mrs. Boye came down the veranda steps and clung to my arm as though she had known me all of her life. “As salaamu alay kum,” she said and it was the gentle voice I remembered from our call. “I am Binoush who you spoke with today. It is good for us to meet. Na nga def? How is the evening?”
During our earlier conversation, I had spoken to her in Wolof, but now she searched her memory for English words and took pains to repeat some Wolof phrases in English as though to be absolutely sure we were speaking the same language.
Binoush was to be my hostess during my stay; it was she who would cook my meals and ensure that I had everything I needed. The concrete house she lived in with her nine relatives was one of a few that stood beneath neem trees around the perimeter of the community centre’s yard.
A man came down the veranda steps. Upon seeing me, he looked surprised but quickly regained his composure. “As-salamu alaykum,” he said, greeting me with a firm handshake. “Welcome to Potou,” he said in French. “I am Amadou, Binoush’s cousin. We hope your journey was not too intolerable.” Amadou was dressed in an open-necked shirt and washed-out jeans. I could not help but notice his strong, slightly bow-legged stance. He was a handsome man and still young, but with an air of impermanence about him. Binoush had told me he was a teacher at the Potou Elementary School.
Before I could protest, he lifted my suitcase. Again, he looked surprised and a grin lit up his face. “It is good to finally meet a toubab who can travel light!”
The next morning, I joined the meeting of the Rural Council in the community centre. Most of its members were village elders and all of them were men. El Hadji, the village chief, had convened them, and led the proceedings.
Also present was a small group of Americans — three journalists, researchers, students and a team from a philanthropy non-profit that had come all the way from Michigan on a “fact-finding mission.” I recognized Jerry Borlaug, an agronomist from California whom I knew well. Employed by an American retail supplier of agricultural products and services, he was advising the Millennium Development Goal Centre on the development of farm cooperatives in the villages.
Amadou, one of the few younger men present, introduced us to the village chief, who then introduced us to the village elders. At first, El Hadji found it difficult to pronounce my name. “I am going to give you a Wolof name,” he said. “We will call you ‘Rakk bu góór Yuusufa’ which means ‘Brother Joseph.’” He had given me the name of one of their esteemed prophets; I was deeply honoured.
Various matters were discussed. The tontine, an informal credit system used by the villagers, was being abused by some of its shareholders. New latrines needed to be built. Several pieces of farming equipment provided by Millennium Village Project donors had broken down. The village’s principal imam was losing his eyesight and a new one needed to be appointed. As usual, I took note of everything; nothing was too insignificant to write down.
After the council was suspended, Jerry invited me to walk with him to the village’s small rice mill; he wanted to inspect a rice huller that had malfunctioned. He was a humourless, dispirited man who smoked compulsively. “We’ll never develop a sustainable farm retail business model if the villagers don’t pay back their loans,” he complained as we walked. “They’ve been given too many handouts and now they’re entitled. They think we owe ‘em something.”
I wanted to point out Senegal’s decades of French colonization, the illicit pricing of natural resources by Western companies, and the trade barriers imposed by the West, all of which had depleted the country of bodies, ivory, gold and other natural resources, but I bit my tongue. After nearly a year on the continent, I had grown weary of the business of laying blame, of blame cloaked in vagueness.
“Maybe they don’t understand the terms of lending,” I suggested, but Jerry was not listening.
“Shit it’s hot.” He lit another cigarette with a small, windproof lighter. “Whatever happened to the famous harmattan winds?” The lighter made a small metallic click as he snapped it shut.
At the mill, we soon discovered what was wrong with the rice huller. “Motor’s not aligned properly,” Jerry muttered, tugging at the belt. “Power’s reduced by more than a half. If they’d kept the screens clean in the first place they wouldn’t have gotten plugged up, then this mess wouldn’t have happened.”
He was right about the equipment being poorly maintained. The farmers had tried to re-attach the motor to the mount with baling wire, a hack job that obviously hadn’t worked.
“A simple nuts and bolts fix eh Jerry?”
“You betcha!” Jerry said, almost merry for once. “Shit, and to think they’ve been carting sacks to the next village. That’s half an hour away for Christ’s sake!”
On our way back, we passed Binoush’s house and I stopped to say hello. She was sitting with a group of women and girls on the ground beneath the trees. They were busy weaving baskets using njodax grass stalks and strips of colored plastic. This was the work Binoush did all day long. Like many of the women basket weavers, her two youngest daughters worked with her, their fingers moving just as deftly and surely as their mother’s. The girls, Thiama and Aissatou, were eight and ten years old. Yayi, Binoush’s oldest daughter, sold mangoes, hibiscus and groundnuts in the Potou Market.
Four years ago, Binoush’s husband Mbodj had left on a rickety eighty-two-foot-long fishing boat hoping to find work in Europe. He had perished when the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. To pay for the trip, Mbodj had sold the small shop they had run together. Now she was one of the so-called “sea widows” of Senegal, without a husband or son to provide for the family.
“How are you doing?” Binoush called to me. “How is the morning? Was it with peace?”
I waved to Binoush and then to all of the women and children. “Mangi fi rekk. Peace only,” I replied in Wolof fashion. I inquired after the women’s well-being.
“Do you like our basket Uncle?” Thiama asked me in Wolof, although she was speaking only of her own basket. “Would you say it is pretty?” Many of the Senegalese children I had met would not speak to me without being spoken to first or look me directly in the eye, but not Thiama. The girl’s eyes were big and dark, her gaze unusually solemn and steady for a child.
“It’s wonderful Thiama,” I agreed wholeheartedly, stopping to admire the coiled basket. Thiama presented me with a finished basket. “Yaye says this one is for you.”
“Thank you Thiama. You have made my day.”
“We share it Uncle,” Thiama replied. It was the curious Wolof way of saying “you’re welcome” that I found wonderful.
Travelling around Africa, I often thought of my old life. I was eighteen years old when I left Trinidad. My God, where does the time go? My college years in Cambridge — that smugly convenient American city I never got used to — had simply flown by. During that time, I rarely ventured outside a five mile radius of Harvard Square, or at least that is how it had felt. Then I was holed up at Columbia for five more years earning a doctorate in International Development. After teaching for six months, I had applied for a Fulbright research grant and was mildly shocked to get it.
When I left America on the promising wings of the Fulbright, I thought I would be working in a glamorous USAID office in a vibrant African city, Nairobi perhaps, or as a special assistant in a foreign government ministry. Instead, the opportunity to assess millennium villages in North Africa had come across my plate. The work fell in line with my research, and so I had accepted. It involved visiting different sites, collecting data and documenting factors that had contributed to the relative successes and failures of the Millennium Villages Project.
I had been visiting the millennium villages for almost a year now. Often, inspecting a district health post as part of a high-level delegation, or chatting with a group of women in a kitchen yard at dusk, I had the strange sensation that my past in New York had been a dream. It had been some years since I had returned to Trinidad, but I remembered it well. Some of the African villages I visited reminded me of villages in certain country areas in the island.
One morning at breakfast, I mentioned this to Binoush. She started and her fork fell with a clatter. She stared at me then and for some reason I felt embarrassed.
“Trinidad you say? In the Caribbean?”
When I nodded, she surprised me by telling me a disturbing story. Her brother who used to live in Burkina Faso and three other men had taken a boat to Trinidad, but had been ordered deported by a Trinidadian magistrate. Soon after, the men had been denied a meeting with their lawyer and she had not heard from him since. “They beat him when he came ashore,” she said. She had spoken so matter-of-factly about her brother’s perilous journey by sea, but now, speaking of the beating and what followed, her voice shook with emotion.
I imagined her brother, hungry and tired, lying face down in the sand at Gran Chemin in Trinidad, a beach on the south coast known as an entry point for illegal immigrants. The bandits fired warning shots into the air, beat the Africans about their heads with the butts of their guns. They took her brother’s wallet, passport and shoes. His countrymen suffered the same fate.
“I am so sorry Binoush,” I stammered.
She acknowledged my sympathy with a nod. She did not speak of her brother again, and she did not ask me about Trinidad. It was the country that had mistreated her brother, what else did she need to know?
A few days later, El Hadji took me in his truck on a tour of Potou. It was a Sunday. The villages were generally quiet but for the feeble bleating of goats and the occasional sputtering of an old motorcycle.
El Hadji was a tall, regal and bespectacled old man who always carried a tall wooden staff. Decades ago, he had attended university in England before returning to his ancestral home in Potou. The wine-red kufi on his head and his large flowing white boubou gave him a vague air of royalty, yet I felt welcomed in his presence. He had the simplicity of a man for whom integrity is second nature.
El Hadji spoke soberly of the positive impact of the cooperation between the Senegalese government and The Millennium Promise Alliance. “Six years ago, we were very badly off. The village was outside of the national grid so we did not have electricity and food production was low. Today, roads have improved. Some homes have power and we are getting there with running water. Schools and health clinics have been built and they are all staffed. There are more vegetable gardens because now we have pipe water to irrigate them.”
He pointed to a group of small brick houses. “I remember when there were thatch roof and earthen huts here. Today you will see more and more concrete houses with zinc roofs.” He spoke without sentimentality, a man who deferred to the practicality of change.
We drove past some onion fields. Children, about twenty of them, were walking across a field, balancing large yellow plastic drums on their heads. They were returning from the village’s new solar-powered water pump which had been donated by a manufacturer in Denmark and was monitored remotely via the Internet. They were dressed in pants and t-shirts, the kind Western children would wear. A little girl wearing a Dora the Explorer t-shirt skipped behind, empty-handed, coloured hair-clips jiggling at the ends of her short plaits. Only one boy, the smallest child, was completely naked and carried a calabash on his head instead of the plastic drum. He cut a familiar figure. I thought wryly that it would be the image of the dusty, naked African boy with the calabash on his head that would be circulated by Western news agencies.
As the children passed us, I read the words “Halisi Fry” on one of the plastic drums. I asked El Hadji what it meant, and he smiled approvingly. “It is a brand of cooking oil you see. We reuse our cooking oil drums.” He said it with an effortless pride that I found both chastening and consoling. At the root of such pride was a dignity that disinvited pity. That the villagers could afford cooking oil but faced a daily struggle for water was an irony not lost on me, but I had become used to such ironies.
The day before my departure, I was summoned to the chief’s house to have lunch with him and his family. The chief’s house was located near the centre of the village. To get there, we drove past fields and vegetable gardens, as well as the elementary school where Amadou worked. “Say hello to the old chief for me!” Amadou said cheerfully as he dropped me off.
El Hadji was in a large room off his courtyard, drinking tea. His only wife, Marieme, a big, graceful woman with elaborately braided hair, insisted I join him. I took off my sandals at the door and passed through sheer organza curtains into the dim interior. The chief was seated on a mat. “Ah yes, Rakk bu góór Yuusufa,” he said without rising. “Come, come, please sit.”
After I had answered the usual questions about my health and whether I had peace, I presented El Hadji with the fifty-kilo bag of rice I had bought at a buutik on my way to our meeting. “No, no,” he said. “Take it to the widows’ collective. Tell them it is a gift from El Hadji’s friend.”
As we talked, the chief’s youngest daughter served our three rounds of tea. I had been nervous about this meeting, but found myself calmed by the serene aura of authority and mint tea that hung about the chief. El Hadji asked me many searching questions, about my work in the millennium villages and about the work being done in Potou, listening attentively to my responses without once interrupting. It was still unclear to me exactly what he thought about us foreigners, such was the chief’s dispassionate nature.
Marieme appeared and announced that lunch was ready. I followed her bright gold and red bobou to the main house. From outside, the chief’s house did not look like much, but inside the tiled floors were spread with soft rugs, and everything exuded order and newness. As we passed a doorway I caught a glimpse of a large, flat-screen television.
The chief’s wife and three children were waiting at a low table. They waited for us to take our seats, cross-legged on cushions on the floor, before sitting down themselves.
“Did you enjoy attaya?” Marieme asked, referring to the informal tea ceremony El Hadji and I had just observed.
“Oh yes Ma, thank you. The tea was just right, mashallah.”
Marieme smiled with real pleasure. “It is good to know you are strong enough to drink real African tea. My husband is back-to-front. He likes to have his tea before his meal.”
El Hadji shrugged good-naturedly at his wife’s gentle chiding. He blessed the food and everyone washed their hands in the washing basins that had been placed around the table. From a single large platter, eating with our right hands only, we shared a delicious meal of chicken simmered in a lemon and onion sauce. I had tasted yassa before, but Marieme’s was by far the most delicious. I told her so and she thanked Allah. El Hadji’s son offered to give me a tour of his father’s farmlands and I graciously accepted.
After lunch, the chief and I retired to the main room to recover from our meal. He said he wanted to speak to me about an important matter. “My brother’s name is Ousmane Mambéty, perhaps you remember him? He is the village chief at Niayam, not far from here. He is the one who told me about you.”
I told the chief I had visited Niayam before and remembered his brother well.
El Hadji’s keen eyes inspected me through his square eyeglasses. “You are younger than I expected.” I was beginning to feel uncomfortable when El Hadji smiled. It was the kind of smile that immediately put a person at ease. “I am sorry to be so personal,” he said apologetically. He leaned back in his chair. “It is my daughter Fatou. The thing is, she has taken off with one of your colleagues, a man from Boston who works for the International Food Policy Research Institute. He is a Millennium Village man like you. I am told he was part of your task force on hunger. His name is Don Sachs.”
The name was intensely familiar. The image of a sleek-haired white man with piercing green eyes flashed across my mind.
“Fatou is a grown woman,” El Hadji continued, “she can do whatever she likes. I am just worried that is all. I would like to know that my daughter is well. The last I heard of her, she had gone with him to one of the village campements in Casamance.”
“I see,” I said. I was surprised; I had not known El Hadji had another daughter. “Your daughter, is she a widow?”
“Yes, a young widow. Her husband died in the Cassamance conflict, peace be upon him. They had been married only a year.”
I understood now why I had been summoned to Potou. El Hadji must have been a more powerful man than I thought to be able to request my presence.
“I will make inquiries,” I told El Hadji, although I did not see what difference it would possibly make. “Don’t worry. I will see what I can do.”
“This is a private matter, you see,” said the chief of a people known for their openness and propensity to share everything. “I do not want to draw too much attention.”
“Yes El Hadji, I understand. I understand.”
After I left El Hadji’s house, I walked along the Leona-Potou main road to the nearby mobile phone shop. I wanted to use the solar-powered charger station The Millennium Village Project had installed inside the small establishment, since my iPhone was dead. I passed buutiks and sewing shops, a télécentre that had gone out of business, and a barbershop with blue curtains hanging across the entrance. On the flung-open, steel double doors were large, conspicuous paintings of sprucely barbered Wolof men; they called to mind a famous Harlem Renaissance portraitist whose name I could not remember.
When I arrived at the mobile phone shop, it was closed, so I walked toward the health post. It was a low, flat-roofed building located a little way off the main road. Once inside, I was grateful for the cool quiet, and for the soothing lull of the oscillating fan. It was the end of the day and only two mothers, their very young children dozing in their laps, were waiting to be seen. I greeted them in Wolof and they responded with easy, tired nods. I attached the phone to the kiosk in the waiting area. It was not long before I had Euric Bobb on the line.
I had met Euric, or “Rickby” as everyone in our old gang still called him, at Columbia; we had both been fellows in the International Fellows Program in the School of International and Public Affairs. It had been a relief to meet a countryman on campus and our friendship had formed easily. He had introduced me to the tight-knit group of Caribbean academics that formed the circle of my acquaintance during those years, and together we had cultivated a distance from the Ivy League crowd, despite frequenting the same dimly-lit student pubs and cafés along Amsterdam Avenue. Rickby had returned to Trinidad a few years ago where he was now the director of the Counter Trafficking Unit in the Ministry of National Security.
A few days earlier, I had called him to request a favour. I knew he had contacts in the island’s Immigration Division who might be able to discover what had happened to a missing illegal. Now, it was a bit difficult to make out his words; I thought it was possible that he was eating, perhaps having a late lunch. Senegal was four hours ahead; it would be mid-afternoon in Trinidad. We spoke a bit about work and our families, then I broached the matter of Moussa Sylla. I had found out from Binoush that this was her brother’s name.
“Ah yes! Don’t worry man, I didn’t forget you. So listen. I made a few calls and I’m afraid it’s not good news. There was a Moussa Sylla at the detention centre in Aripo … up until last month that is.” The name ‘Moussa Sylla’ had been stuck in my head for days but it sounded different when Rickby said it, as though he had removed the man from the world to which he belonged and changed him into something else entirely. “One of three suicide attempts at the centre last month alone,” Rickby confirmed ruefully, “although his was the only successful one.”
I felt unable to speak and was suddenly startled by a passing shadow. Someone outside the building had walked past the concrete openwork in the wall behind me. Rickby was still speaking, but I did not hear what he said. Turning around nervously, I was strangely relieved to see a nurse. She entered the building, moving in a desultory manner. She wore a white coat over her green bobou. She glanced at me curiously and I wondered if she thought I was a villager. The nurse called the name of one of the women and I watched as both disappeared through another door, the mother still carrying the child.
“Real squalid conditions boy,” Rickby was saying emphatically. “I’m told they treat detainees like animals. But that’s not all. Oddly enough, there was another man who went by the name of Moussa Sylla who escaped from the centre a few months ago. He was a new detainee and bolted before they could register him. Apparently, he fought with and stabbed another detainee, a Guyanese, before he fled. The Guyanese succumbed to his wounds. There is no photo of either of the Moussa Syllas on file…a set of backwardness if you ask me.”
“The stabbing, was it an accident?”
“An act of self-defense you mean? No one knows for sure. The circumstances are not exactly clear.”
Rickby had obtained the registration number of the man who had committed suicide. I wrote it down in the CAURIE Microfinance passbook that one of the women of the Banc Villageois had given me as a gift. I had many of these booklets with their recognizable brown covers bearing the microfinance institution’s logo — a pair of hands cradling two cowrie shells — and they came in handy for just such things.
After our conversation ended, I realized I had forgotten about the woman and the child. I saw now that the woman had closed her eyes; but I could tell she was not sleeping because her chest did not rise and fall deeply like that of the child in her lap. I wondered if she was a sea widow like Binoush, if she too was waiting for someone who might never return. I had planned to call an acquaintance in Casamance to enquire about the chief’s daughter, but now I became aware of something like exhaustion weighing down upon me. I would make that call another day. Tomorrow perhaps. Or next week when I got back to the hotel in Dakar. If I was honest with myself, I was happy to put it off. There was still time, I reasoned. If the chief’s daughter was in love with the American she could not be that badly off …
I wished the woman a good night. “Fanaanal ak jamm,” she responded, opening her eyes. As I unplugged my cell phone, she gently shook her child awake. The nurse had not yet returned, and stepping outside, I felt guilty about leaving them there alone. The small common around the building was nothing but gravel and dust, not a blade of grass in sight; crossing it, I felt its emptiness keenly. The sky over Potou was astonishing, a diaphanous bleed of flame-orange and fuchsia. A glorious Senegalese sunset. It was already dark when I re-joined the main road.
I had been worrying for some time about what I would do once my Fulbright year was up. Now I had a plan. I had made up my mind that I would return to Trinidad and work to improve the Caribbean’s immigration and deportation policies so that the basic human rights of detainees and aliens would be ensured.
When I got back to the house, I told Binoush of my new vision and she nodded. “Allah brought you to our village to see and now Allah sends you back to your country to help your people see. You will do this work well in your country Inshallah.” A tear rolled down her cheek and I knew she was thinking of her brother. She wiped it away quickly and smiled before I had a chance to comfort her. “You are leaving tomorrow yes?”
After I expressed my regrets about leaving them so soon, she invited me to spend my last night in the village by accompanying her to a tanibeer. I had heard about these night-time drumming parties and was curious.
“You ever see sabar?” Binoush asked. “No? Come with me and you will see how we dance sabar then.”
That night, I sat with Binoush and Amadou at the edge of the sabar circle in a small unpaved courtyard. In the middle of the circle, dancers, male and female, young and old, thrust their bodies to the fiery rhythm of the sabar drums. They turned their faces toward the stars and their feet kicked up sand. A low hum of festive chatter filled the warm night air. Outside the circle, children ran to and fro, playing and shouting to each other.
I studied Binoush as she watched the dancers. She was dressed in a dark purple bobou that was not exactly fine, but beautiful compared to what she usually wore. Her head moved ever so slightly to the music and her soft eyes gleamed even more softly in the light of the courtyard’s single lamppost. She did not look like a widow with a brother unaccounted for, just one of Africa’s countless migrant men lost to the Sahara, the sea and the harsh pull of opportunity.
Binoush shifted in her chair. She leaned over and spoke close to my ear. “My brother Moussa, he used to dance sabar. Since he is little he try it, then he can dance it the best in the village.”
I had not thought she would speak of her brother again. It surprised and touched me. She continued, her voice low but remarkably clear. “When my husband left, my whole body was dead. I could not say, or do, anything ... nobody could stop him from leaving. Then when I heard about my brother, I was finished. I am not a person anymore.”
She spoke with an almost formal sadness. Suddenly my eyes stung and I was grateful for the courtyard’s semi-darkness. Rickby’s words echoed hauntingly in my mind. I’m told they treat detainees like animals. I had not yet told Binoush what he had told me.
“You will try to find him for us? My brother Moussa, you will look for him when you go back to your country?”
I knew something of Trinidad’s illegal immigration problem. I had heard of the terrible conditions and inhumane treatment of detainees at the island’s detention centres, a large number of them Africans. I had read an article on a Trinidadian news website about the high rates of suicide among those awaiting deportation.
“I will try my best Binoush,” I promised.
I looked into her searching eyes and for a moment I panicked, for it seemed they were filled with disappointment. But the moment passed very quickly. Binoush smiled wistfully. “Jere jef,” she said, nodding. I wanted to say something more, but she leaned away and shifted her gaze once again to the dancers.
I thought that was the end of it but the next morning, as the driver was carrying my suitcase out to the car, she pressed something into my hand. Her hand against mine was warm and dry. I looked down at the faded picture of her brother, a smiling man with wide-open, hopeful eyes. On the back of it she had written her brother’s name and the name of his lawyer. I was surprised; I had forgotten about the lawyer. I put the photo safely in my breast pocket and walked toward the new day.
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