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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Alpha Sabaly

My grad school bro, Mr. Ben Downer, visited Senegal for the entire month of December.  Ben plans to write a blog post about his Senevacation, so I won't get into too much detail here; suffice it to say, it was a blast. Here are pictures!  Because Ben had a camera!


My favorite day of the month was Ben's naming ceremony.  A naming ceremony is called a Dennabo, so we called this party his Bennabo.  Puns are fun in any language.


Babies here are typically given a name when they're a week old.  At 26, Ben was probably too old to have a naming ceremony,  but I love parties, and my village loves free food, so we did it anyway.  To have a naming ceremony, it is necessary for the new baby to have a name, which means it is necessary to obtain a namesake.  Traditionally, the elders of the village choose what the new baby's name will be, but I insisted on choosing Ben's.  I said I was the only one who understood his personality and the personalities of my family here in Teyel.  Ben's tokara was a no-brainer: it had to be my nephew Alpha.  

When Ben asked why Alpha was his namesake, why this kid was so great, I struggled to find the words to sum him up.  I instead told Ben a few stories about Alpha.  Here the stories are. Enjoy.

Les dauphins

Pulaar Movie Nights are still going strong in village.  If my computer battery is charged, we'll usually watch something for at least a half-hour. My village is full of movie talkers who constantly narrate the onscreen events, which I love - through movies, I learned my more obscure Pulaar vocabulary, like enyenji (cannibals) and wurtude (to come back to life after dying.)   

On Pulaar Movie Nights, I always sit next to Alpha.  When I attempt to explain the movie, he listens patiently and if necessary relays my explanations back to the family, translating my heavily accented baby Pulaar into something understandable to everyone. 

During Pirates of the Caribbean, there were a few seconds of footage of dolphins frolicking in front of the Black Pearl.  Malli, a old toothless neighbor man, stated, "They are fish."

Alpha dissented.  "No.  They are dolphins."  He said the English word in a French accent, just as I'd unintentionally taught him while watching another movie a few weeks before. 

Malli persisted. "They are in the water.  They are fish." 

"They are not fish," insisted Alpha.  "Dolphins give birth and breastfeed.  Fish lay eggs.  Fish have no breasts."  

Everyone was quiet. After a few seconds, Alpha added, confidently: "Also, a bat is not a bird.  It gives birth and breastfeeds, too." 


Alpha doesn't go to school, but it's not because he's not smart enough: it’s just that he doesn't want to. Imagine you were in his place, an inquisitive curious preteen with endless free time to wander through the forest, in an area where the sun is always shining and winter never comes.  You probably wouldn't want to deal with shoddy supplies and frequently unmotivated teachers, either.

Instead of school, Alpha runs his own program.  He frequently walks to the woods and comes back with pockets full of wild bush fruit.  He'll offer no explanation of where he's been the last six hours, and is rarely asked.  

The more we talk, the more I love this kid.  He could carry on a conversation with a rock.  A "would you rather" conundrum gives us fodder for up to twenty minutes of thoughtful discussion.  For the record, Alpha would rather face a crocodile than a python, would never ever want to go to Jurassic Park for any amount of money, and would rather fall in his latrine hole once than do the family's cooking for a month.  You can imagine how language barriers prevented me from fully appreciating his beautifully creative brain until now.
Kitty Birth Control
Despite all odds and expectations, my garbage kitten Mallory is thriving in village...perhaps a little too well. Recently, my host brother Tidiane sat me down to tell me some solemn news.  
"Mallory had a kiirjo last night," he said.  He was quiet for a time, recognizing that “looking up, pursed lips” means “I will get this, give me a second,” whereas “blank stare, gaping fish mouth” means “Please try again with different words, I am hopelessly lost.”  I puzzled out the word.  H’s are pronounced like K’s sometimes, and –jo at the end of the word means a person – so kiirjo would be a person performing the verb hiirde, to visit someone at night.  A night visitor!  Mallory had a night visitor!  I looked back at Tidiane, bewildered.  “WHAT?!”

“It’s true.  I heard them.  Mallory will get pregnant soon.  You will have baby cats.”  

Later in the day, I discussed the problem with Alpha as Mallory dozed on the mat between us.  We agreed that grossesse precoce, early marriage, was a big problem for all girls, human and feline.  Alpha suggested we make Mallory ugly so boys wouldn’t like her.  I agreed, since I’d used a similar pregnancy prevention strategy for most of my life and could vouch for its efficacy. 

Alpha went into his dad’s hut and came back with a small razor blade.  He shaved off a half-inch-long swath of hair at the top of her head, leaving bare pink cat skin, then smiled and solemnly nodded.  Job done.
I’m not sure whether Alpha’s hilarious or completely humorless.  He thinks everything through before he speaks and chooses his words carefully.  He stresses important words to make sure he’s understood, even when what he’s saying is bizarre.  He rarely laughs, even while I’m cracking up. Is he the perfect comedic straight man?  Does he just know how to run with an idea?  Might he be a little bit crazy?  I have no idea.  All I know is that he’s one of my favorite people in Senegal, possibly one of my favorite people in the world, and in three short months I’m going to have to move away and will probably never see him again.  
Good old Anne Shirley put it perfectly:
"I've put out a lot of little roots these two years," Anne told the moon, "and when I'm pulled up they're going to hurt a great deal. But it's best to go, I think, and, as Marilla says, there's no good reason why I shouldn't. I must get out all my ambitions and dust them." 
~Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

I was transplanted here two years ago lush and green, a sapling.  Since then, the soil's been good to me.  I've grown and matured.  I have new branches filled with new leaves.  I miss my old soil and I really want to go back, but taking a machete to these village roots sounds painful and terrifying.  I will miss Alpha like I'll miss dozens of other people in Senegal, but if I stay, I'll continue to miss the family and friends I left behind in America. It's a problem with no solution.

100 days left in Senegal.