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Short Account of Village Life

I was inspired to write this last night and wanted to share a bit. Think of it as a sort of travel guide:

This is a desert place. Once a year, after the rain, a sheer layer of grass covers some empty spaces. On the mesa there are a few thorny trees. By the river, there are rice fields. Herons hunt in the knee-deep water there. Otherwise, the land is dun-colored, broken by red rock formations and mesas, traditional round mud huts and more modern, rectangular cement buildings. The cement buildings are decorated with gingerbread work that crumbles quickly in the heat and wind. The mud huts are the same, year after year, repaired annually just before Tabaski.

It's too hot to sleep indoors. The 5 a.m. breeze is the sweetest moment of the day; one luxuriates in the possession of a sheet, and snuggles down to sleep comfortably for a few minutes before the men are called to morning prayer. There seems to be little reason to get up when school is out of session, but one gets up anyway. Early morning is the best time to get water for the day from the well. The sun has not yet grown hot, and the old men smile approvingly as they leave the mosque. Men pray; women carry water. That is what one does.

Village life is slow unless you cook or work in the clinic. The young girls and women who do the cooking have to get up early and work at their little wood-fired stoves all day long. They sweep the mats, clean the dishes, roll the couscous, and do the marketing. The best time to visit these women is late morning, when they are back from the market and making lunch. They appreciate having someone to talk to while they cook. Midwives treat malaria, deliver babies, give vaccinations, and circumcise young boys. There are lulls in this work, but they have to stay at the clinic through them, so friends visit them there. The rest of the village is taken up with smaller tasks. Tea-drinking is a major pastime. Important men drink their tea up at the City Hall, near the top of the hill. Women visit each other and drink tea served by the boys or men of the household.

During Ramadan, it's good to have a book. Most of the village dozes during the day. Women don't need to cook, and the marketing has been done the night before. If you can't sleep in the heat of the day, it's good to have something to do. Some people can chat endlessly with friends about nothing in particular and never get bored, but most Americans aren't too good at that. There are only so many letters one can write that say, essentially, “It's hot. It's dusty. I'm tired. Not much has happened this week.”

A spot of excitement can keep a person going for weeks. So long as no one is seriously hurt, a tumble into a well can keep one amused for a time. A wedding lasts three days; that's long enough to see everyone in their finest clothes and hear some good drumming from the women. They drum while they cook, using wooden spoons and plastic serving bowls. They dance for each other while they cook. Men never see this side of a wedding, though naturally they can hear it. It belongs to the women.

A few times a year, an airplane flies overhead. After a while, it's difficult not to think of airplanes as miraculous metal birds. It's impossible to refrain from staring at them. No one blames the children for running through the streets after an airplane, shouting “Abia! Abia! Abia!” They run as far as they can, just to keep the airplane in sight. They will talk about the airplane for days.

Travel is another way to amuse oneself, if one can afford it. Go down to the river bank, past the market. Before 7:00, it's usually easy to find an empty pickup truck, and the drivers are always willing to shuttle anyone who can pay. Later in the day, it might be necessary to drink tea with the gendarmes while waiting in their one-room shack for a merchant vehicle to come along. If lunchtime comes around and there are still no trucks, one of the market families will come to fetch the people who are waiting. A truck will eventually come. It may be necessary to sit on top of sacks of rice piled so high that one's feet just touch the top of the cab of the pickup, or with a truckload of goats, but that adds to the excitement of travel.

Breakfast and lunch are standardized meals. Everyone eats the same things. For breakfast, there is bread. If someone has recently visited the city and brought gifts, there is sometimes jam. There is Nescafe with powdered milk and a great deal of sugar. Be careful: it is not real coffee. At lunch, everyone eats rice and fish. Some families eat maafe - goat or mutton cooked in peanut butter and spices - with their rice on Fridays. Usually rice and fish is made with tomato paste, which makes the rice orange, though sometimes it will be white. In the cold season, there might also be cabbage and carrots. Sometimes there are little white sweet potatoes.

Rice is not eaten for dinner unless it is pulverized first. One generally eats couscous, made of either millet or rice flour. Sometimes meat or fish balls are served. Sometimes there is a pool of oil with onions in it to dip one's food into. Meals are served on a common plate and eaten with the right hand. Well-brought-up Pulaars will put the index finger of the left hand onto the bowl to secure it while they eat. Each person eats only the food directly in front of him or her.

After dinner, people tend to migrate to houses where someone has a car battery. These are used to power black-and-white television sets. Everyone watches the news, Goorgoorlu, and Latin American soap operas on Radio-Television Senegal, which has a remarkably strong signal extending well beyond the borders of Senegal. Once the shows are over, people disperse. The women find a place to sleep, and if they have foam mattresses, they put them down. Once in a while, someone will put up a mosquito net, though it is rarely secured well enough that mosquitos can't get in. Men and boys sleep in one part of the compound, women and girls in another. Mattresses are pushed flush with each other so that no one needs to be lonely while sleeping. Everyone goes to bed and dozes, waiting for the 5 a.m. breeze and the call to morning prayers.