An African villager's work is never done

Before turning off the paved road and onto the horse-cart paths that connect Thiès to Senegal's hinterland, the man whose job it was to abandon me for a week in a remote village stopped at an outdoor market.

"You should get some things for your host family," he said, and promptly began to fill two plastic bags with as many vegetables, fish, and baguettes as my $20 could buy.

Bestowing gifts on my captors hadn't been high on my list of priorities. After two months in cosmopolitan Dakar, the "rural experience" part of my study-abroad program felt more like a forced exile than an honor requiring reciprocation.

Koulouk resembled every other village we had passed since leaving Thiès: a few tin-roofed concrete-block compounds enclosed by millet-stalk fences replete with unruly chickens and sheep. All that separated sand from sky were bulbous baobab trees, scattered about the barren landscape like quixotic windmills, refusing to form a forest and reluctant to provide much-needed shade.

My stomach sank at the thought of all that I did not share with my hosts: a language, a culture, and common ground. If ignorance was my crime, this punishment seemed excessive.

Then I met "Mami" (Grandma). Sizing me up quickly, she intuited my linguistic limitations and dispensed with the lengthy traditional greeting. Snatching the bags of produce I extended proudly, she handed them off to one of two dozen kids come to stare and snicker. Suddenly Mami was pulling me through the growing crowd toward the closest compound.

Before being deposited in what was to be my room (Mami's room, I later learned), I had time to be surprised by her strength - she was 70 or so; I also registered her lack of teeth, since she too was snickering. Apparently the joke was on me, only I didn't get it.

"Rest," Mami said, forcing me to sit on the straw-stuffed mattress to be certain I understood. Then she withdrew, along with the sounds of a village that had come to greet me, the villagers returning to whatever they had been doing before the funny foreigner arrived.

Later, my dinner was delivered: a succulent rice-based fish and vegetable dish. My gift of produce had been artistically transformed. Eating alone, I wondered with a mixture of hope and dread if solitary confinement would be my fate here.

The rhythmic beat of mortar and pestle woke me at dawn. When, hours later, still no one had come calling, I concluded that my solitude would indeed remain undisturbed unless I showed my face - and some interest in my surroundings.

Mami sat on a mat at the base of the nearest tree, apparently waiting for me.

"There's Mariama," she chuckled and asked, not without irony, "Sleep well?" The better part of a village day - the part when the Sahelian heat is not unbearable - had elapsed as I'd struggled to pull myself together.

From that moment on, Mami was my unrelenting guide to village life. At an old woman's pace - or a foreigner's - we walked from one compound to the next, from field to field and town to town, greeting everyone we met. Invariably, the ingredients of my evening meal were supplied by some new acquaintance.

"These eggs were given to you by Sokhna," Mami would say, cradling them in ebony palms before returning them to me as an omelet. Khadidja brought sweet curdled milk. Rokhoya offered dried beans and palm oil.

While I continued to enjoy all my meals in solitude - an honor typically reserved for only the most dignified adult male guests - I managed to discover what fare filled the communal bowls around which everyone else ate: a grainy, sand-colored, unsalted millet couscous, served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Between visits to neighbors, Mami introduced me to the region's flora.

"Bii moo sikim," she would say, pointing to a tree with thin, pointy leaves.

"Sikim," I would repeat, to her great amusement. Such was the extent of our conversations.

So sure was she of my inability to converse in Wolof that Mami repeated over and over, like a song to whose maddening beat we walked the scorched village paths, "Mariama dëggoul daara." "Mariama doesn't understand a word I'm saying." That much I did understand.

In my frustration, it was easy to forget that Wolof wasn't her mother tongue either. In fact, an entire Sereer village had switched to speaking this lingua franca purely for my benefit.

After touring a henna field, Mami commissioned two young nieces to paint my hands and feet. This was the initial phase of a makeover project whose goal was to get me out of my ratty jeans and T-shirt and into a brocade boubou. Approving looks from all made me realize that my grunge-style apparel had occasioned all those snickers.

Incorrigible, I was back in jeans and riding a donkey bareback later that afternoon, goaded by the few remaining men who had resisted a rural exodus to the capital in search of work. Mami shook her head disparagingly at the sorry sight of me.

Given that I was too restless to play the role of dignified guest, Mami had resolved to instill in me the joys of being female in this part of the world. My third day was thus spent performing the countless tasks that constitute a Kouloukian woman's daily routine from age 7 to 70.

Before dawn, we collected firewood and water, swept, pounded millet into flour, rolled flour into couscous, lighted fires, cooked breakfast, fed the menfolk - and ate what remained. Then it was off to the fields where, bent under a blistering sun, we pulled peanuts from the ground and beans from their stalks. A couple of us marched back to the village to get lunch under way. Lunch preparation involved the same lengthy routine as breakfast, plus having to deliver it to the men and boys tilling the distant fields.

At nightfall, utterly exhausted, I could only watch as my new colleagues, chatting and joking, shelled the mass of peanuts and beans we'd harvested. "Never an idle moment" is a vast understatement of these women's lives.

When the Peugot 505 finally arrived to fetch me, Mami handed me two heavy bags, one filled with peanuts and the other with beans. She had been right: I understood next to nothing of all this. I did, however, comprehend clearly that within this culture of competitive generosity, no matter how much I was willing to give, Koulouk would always see my wager and raise the stakes tenfold.

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