by Patty Smith
In Senegal early on, Jim, a fellow Fulbrighter, and I are given a Guide to Living in Senegal, published by the U.S. Embassy, that advises us to avoid public transportation. I’m nervous that Jim, seeing the warning not to take public transportation explicitly written in the Embassy guide, will take it as a command. But Jim agrees that taxis are too expensive to rely on exclusively, so he and I get lessons in How To Take Public Transportation from Jodi, a Peace Corps volunteer in Dakar. We’re given an insider’s guide to riding the car rapides, blue and white vans with names like “All Praise Allah” painted in yellow scrawl on the front.
There isn’t anything rapide about them.
Not the way they wait until every breathable space is taken up before they leave, so full that one more passenger can’t fit and three do. Thighs glued to thighs, a stranger’s baby, diaper-less, thrust in your lap, live chickens stuffed beneath the seat. Not the way the cars lurch forward, jerk through crowded streets, horn honking, radio blasting Zairian zoukous or South African dance music. The trick is to find the car that is headed where you want to go and board the one that is most full. The next trick is when to get off. The Senegalese snap their fingers to give the signal to the apprenti, usually a boy, who hangs off the back of the van like the trash collectors in American suburbs. When a passenger gives the signal, the apprenti bangs the roof and the driver pulls over.
The first time Jim and I take the car rapide by ourselves we are giddy. At Sandaga Market, we decide the time has come to try public transportation. Without trouble, we locate the right car headed in our direction and board as if we have been doing this for years. We squish together in a seat. We forget all about where to get off.
We pass a store that I recognize as the Lebanese grocery store not far from our apartment. I nudge Jim with my elbow, turn to let the apprenti know we want to get off. As if suddenly woken from sleep, Jim jumps to his feet, thrusts his arms to the side, and contorts his face, wide-eyed and quivering. In Wolof, he shouts “I get off here!” But his cry isn’t a triumph; it’s a desperate plea. He looks wildly at every passenger, “I get off here!” His outburst takes me by surprise, and along with everyone else, I start to laugh.
Later, Jim asks what was so funny. “Isn’t that what you say?”
“It’s not the words,” I tell him. “But your face—you looked so terrified.” And I’m howling, doubling over, holding my stomach.
In the same Embassy publication, I read that the Senegalese are a superstitious people. Don’t step over the legs of a pregnant woman, the pamphlet warns, or you’ll curse the unborn baby. Never whistle at night. A witch will come and snatch you.
It’s November, and I’m in Ziguinchor, teaching one of my classes, a lively group of quatrièmes. I write the word “Superstition” on the board.
“Do you know what that means?” I ask in English. “In the States, we have superstitions, like, if you break a mirror, you’ll have seven years of bad luck.” I go on. “I’ve heard that you have superstitions about witches?”
My students feign the cool of fourteen year olds everywhere.
“What?” I say. “It isn’t true?”
“Well, Madame,” a few of them begin. “Of course we don’t believe it.”
“If you whistle at night, a witch will come and snatch you—you don’t believe that? Who has whistled at night?”
Not a hand goes up.
“We have not whistled, Madame, but that does not mean we believe such silly things.” The group has a spokesperson now—I’ll call him Issa—this quiet, dutiful boy in front of me. He dresses always in traditional clothing—a white caftan and sandals. His hair is cut short, close to his round head. Eyes that absorb everything I say.
“Great.” I rub my hands together. “Then, tonight, after dark, we will meet, the whole group, and we will whistle.”
All fifty-five faces cloud and the students turn to look at each other, uneasy.
I’m only sort of serious. I am curious about these superstitions, and I think that if we all whistle together, we won’t be scared. Half of me wants to see the witch. I’ve already seen the power of the Kangkouran, the spirit who appears in the season of circumcision, parading around with the newly-circumcised boys, their heads shaven clean. It’s forbidden for women to look upon the Kangkouran, but of course I think that because I’m a western woman, he’ll have no power over me. When I see him in the streets of Ziguinchor, a tall, masked creature with a wild mane of hair like a lion, I stop and watch.
I’m on the streets near the market on an otherwise normal day—sunny with hot, blue sky. The rains have stopped and from now until June, we’ll have sun, sun, sun. I’m walking along the dusty street when I hear chanting and see the boys in white, walking in line, one shiny head behind the other. Women, with their jugs of palm oil or pails of millet, turn their heads away from the Kangkouran and try to take cover. A few scream and run, holding their pagnes closed with their hands, gripping the buckets on their heads. The Kangkouran, now an angry stalking figure, is headed straight for me, his arms raised, a Senegalese Frankenstein. I duck into the cloth shop behind me.
“What would he have done if he had caught me?” I ask Lamine later when I’m telling him all about it.
“You do not want to know, Pa-tee,” Lamine says, shaking his head.
In the classroom, after a long moment of squirming on everyone’s part, Issa speaks up. “Oh Madame, we are sorry, we cannot do what you are asking.”
“Because the witch will get you? C’mon! She can’t get all of us!”
“No, Madame,” Issa repeats firmly. “It is not possible.”
“Don’t you wonder?” I ask. I’m pacing now in the skinny rows between the dusty desks where my students sit, three or four to a bench, no room like in the cars rapides.
“Madame,” they say. They talk at once, shake their fingers, tsk with their throats. “You must not. It is wrong. The witch she will surely come,” they say in ominous tones.
I drop the subject then and the other half of me who has no desire to meet the witch refuses to whistle alone at night. I wouldn’t say that I’m a superstitious person, but who hasn’t tossed a bit of spilled salt over the left shoulder or walked around a ladder instead of beneath it? Still, I cannot honestly believe that walking over the legs of a pregnant woman curses her unborn baby or that whistling at night brings a witch who will snatch you away. But that’s how superstitions work, isn’t it? You don’t believe, but you’re not one hundred per cent certain, so you continue to be extra careful when moving glass mirrors and you always, always knock on wood when discussing your good luck.
I should not be surprised then when I am robbed a few days before Thanksgiving. Even though I have not whistled at night, I have encouraged my students to join me in this transgression. There are other rules I have ignored too. I have not hired a guardien to watch over my house. I haven’t fixed the lock on my garden gate. I haven’t even bothered to pull down the metal shutters at night over the sliding glass doors that open from my living room onto my patio. It is dusk when I stop off at home to fill a thermos with water before dance class. I find, littered in my courtyard, a trail of clothes leading from the gate to a wide hole smashed in my kitchen door around back. One sneaker lies carelessly on the black and white tiled floor, as if its owner were snatched suddenly away. I stoop, pick up my tank top, two white T-shirts. I step inside holding my own clothes and offer a tentative, “Hello?” like I am the intruder, then a more forceful “Anyone here?” half expecting a witch to emerge from around the corner.
Inside, the house is a whirlwind mess—papers and books scattered; brand-new tape player, at least half my cassettes gone; pillowcase tossed in the entranceway to the bedroom. I step over the pillowcase toward my bed, a bare mattress, lonely and exposed, stripped of sheets beneath the mosquito netting. The armoire door dangles open. Except for one dress, it is empty. My clothes, too, are gone.
It is a ridiculous feeling I have, as if my eyes and brain are playing “Telephone” and the final message arrives incomprehensible. I stand in the middle of the room, looking at the open, empty armoire, my arms still holding what is left of my clothes. I keep turning and looking as if on the next spin, I will see something different: sheets on the bed; shirts and pants hanging in the armoire. For a minute, I’m even insulted and wonder why my one dress wasn’t good enough to take too.
“Pa-tee?” Jean, my French neighbor from the other half of the house, steps into the mess and from the living room doorway, waves a bottle of Scotch. He gestures at the room and shrugs. Home from the lycée before me, he has already seen the damage. A vague sense of embarrassment creeps up, coloring my neck then my face.
I tell him the obvious, that I’ve been robbed, only in French it comes out “I’ve been stolen.”
We share the Scotch on my couch. We shake our heads over and over and wonder how someone could have walked out in broad daylight with all my belongings, unnoticed. I list and re-list what I know is missing—my clothes, the sheets, my towels, books, tapes, camera, tape player. I haven’t yet noticed my alarm clock, the bottle of wine I bought myself for my birthday, my electric iron, my tampons.
Jean and I drink too much and laugh at the idea of someone sauntering down the street, the basket from my bedroom on his head, full to the brim with my things. The nerve, we say.
I’m madder than anything that someone would want to rob me. I like living here in Senegal, teaching English, but twice now, I have been robbed (only weeks earlier, my Senegalese bike had been stolen). As much as I know that it could happen to me anywhere, my house in the States had never been broken into. Here, I feel targeted, singled out. I don’t think about how I’ve neglected to do what I’m supposed to—the rules I might have broken, the witch I boldly tried to summon. Jean and I decide that the thief must be a man, someone shiftless and lazy, who, instead of working, spent his time learning my habits, lying in wait for the one half hour when, my maid Clémentine and the other maids gone, Jean, his wife Marie-Christine and I not yet home from school, the entire house was unattended. A woman would be far too busy. Cooking, cleaning, shopping at the market, taking care of the household.
It’s late when Lamine shows up at my house. I explain what has happened. I start to cry, which seems to irritate him. I show him the empty armoire. Lamine doesn’t seem to be as angry as I would like him to be, but he insists on staying the night, in case the thieves return. There’s nothing left to steal, I tell him. Lamine insists. He will stay with me from now on. I’m shaken by the theft and I’m exhausted and a little drunk, but I don’t want Lamine staying with me from now on and maybe not even for the night. I don’t need to be taken care of. But I let him stay. I tell him to sleep in the living room on the bamboo couch, but in the middle of the night, Lamine comes in the bedroom and lifts the mosquito netting to crawl in bed with me and I let him.
When I tell my students about the robbery, they tell me to get a gris gris to hang on my door to prevent further thefts.
“Madame,” they say. “You can see a marabout. He will give you an anti-theft gris gris.” This comment starts a whole round of discussion—about the power of gris gris, about how the thieves can get anti anti-theft gris gris, about how then, when thieves come to steal your things, you are powerless.
“That is what happened to us,” one little boy says. He is serious. He sits in the middle of the classroom, a quiet, unnoticeable student. “We were sitting in our house and a thief stole our things from all around us. But he was invisible and we could not even see him, his gris gris was that powerful.” The other heads nod. Everyone listens. I’m not sure what to make of my student’s story. It seems unbelievable, but now I’m less certain, less quick to jump to conclusions. None of the students laugh or seem surprised at what this boy is saying. The believe in the power of the gris gris, the existence of the supernatural. The Senegalese consult marabouts for everything from health remedies to potions that will make an unfaithful husband fall back in love with his wife.
I want my own gris gris, something to stick on my door that announces my intentions, that I am in Senegal with an open heart and a desire to learn. But when I stop to think about it, I’m a little horrified to hear my mother’s words—you people—deep in the back of my head. As in I like you people. Still, while it isn’t okay for someone to steal and it isn’t some sort of crazy good luck that I’m robbed—the way some people talk about a disease being a “blessing”—eventually, I come to see that what I’m pining for are things. If the thief had asked instead of taken, what would I have given? How do I give now, to the beggars who confront me daily? As the days pass, I’m less angry. I continue to live—to go to school, see Lamine, wake up content—without my books, tapes, iron, and radio. I don’t like the way I learn this lesson, but I’m grateful for it nonetheless.
“Well,” I say to my students. “That’s all over with now.” I tell them about Thanksgiving and the standard American tale of Pilgrims and the Native Americans who brought food to share. I tell is straight, without an ironic spin. I give my students the fairy tale version, the happy scene at Plymouth Colony where white Europeans and native people sat together and shared the bounty of the harvest. I tell them I’ll be going off to Dakar to celebrate Thanksgiving and that I won’t be in class for a couple of days.
I take my one remaining dress and head to the gare routière, where I will board the car rapide that is most full and head to Dakar for Thanksgiving dinner.