Goodbye, My Temporary Lover

More thoughts from Dakar…

I wanted you to sing to me. I had grown accustomed to hasty lullabies flung over my mother’s shoulder while she fanned a reluctant flame, or loving strains whispered to me long after I had fallen asleep, another hard day of work completed. I wanted you to sing to me, to speak to me tenderly, to bring offerings of fabrics and drinks to my family, humbly asking for my hand. Instead, you spoke to me in a bastardized mix of phrases and predicates, faint traces of grammar lessons you never paid attention to. You shrugged your shoulders when I delicately pointed out your mistakes, ready to applaud your efforts to correct yourself. You carried on, contorting the names of all my beloved places. The haunts of my childhood, towns with melodic names, appellations lovingly bestowed eight days after birth, corrupted in your bitter mouth, hacked apart with your lackluster accent. Popenguine. Ziguinchor. Sangalkam. You didn’t bother to learn the names of my children, they were just props in your collection of rare objects. Aïssatou. Ndeye. Moustapha. I wanted you to sing their harmonies, but you were never quite on key.

Why did I try? I invited you into my world, laid all my wares before you. Your hands invaded all my nuances, manipulated my curves and felt every crevice. You were trying to see if I was worth the “bon prix”, worth taking back and being put on display in your ivory tower for all your people to ogle and admire and criticize. I was exotic enough for the moment, the highest of cheekbones and the longest of necks. Beauty incarnate, elegance itself. I would do. In the same way you chewed up and spat out words in a twisted mess, you mangled the parts of me that suited you and discarded those that were too mundane. Your greedy, sweaty hands roved and roved over all my goods, and picked what looked most authentic to accessorize your pale life.

And yet, when I tried to introduce you to my aunts, the one who was not wanted and the illustrious Madame Bâ, the disapproving Uncle Leopold and the eccentric neighbor Soyinka with his shock of white hair, you offered a wan smile out of courtesy. Your hands had barely grasped theirs in greeting before you turned away and sought more exciting things to satisfy your wanderlust. You wanted to explore with me…explore me, exploit… You carried on with your expedition, taking and taking. You said you needed souvenirs to remember me by, and I foolishly obliged. I knew you did not fully understand, nor would you ever, but accorded the privilege of guest status you gained access to all the secret trappings of my being. I unraveled lengths of beads from around my neck, my wrist, my waist. I smudged the kohl from my eyes, extended my palms free of their red stain. I wanted you to experience me in my truest form, in my multitude of realities. I offered you the finest mbazin, but the ill-fitting garment you produced did not do it an ounce of justice.

I wanted to dance with you. I wanted us to sway together as the strings plucked our pleasure in liquid form, harmonies deliciously languid and painfully expectant. I wanted you to fly feet off the ground driven wild by the escalating rhythm. We would disappear into a cloud of dust and emerge laughing and arguing about who fell first. But instead, you stayed firmly planted in the sand, your joints creaking and complaining as they were not accustomed to moving in that way. Your hips remained immovable, but I loved you for trying. At least I did, until you whispered to me with your mouth curved in that cruel smirk, more disjointed words about how this wasn’t a “real” dance anyway.

The sound of drums grated your nerves. You failed to see how this could be considered music. You failed to notice the exhilarating effect they had on my sisters surrounded by a circle of eager spectators. You failed to listen to my stories of ancestral triumph and defeat, to the ways my cousins reclaimed their compromised nobility and built shaky nations where empires had stood just the other day. My stories of cultural movements and newborn intellectuals in impeccably fitted suits failed to tickle your fancy. You failed to perceive the romantic wistfulness in my eyes, the nostalgia for a time I had never known. Or lack thereof. You did not even sniff at my apathy, my longing to be more like you and your own, nor did you understand your role in my cracked mirror reflection. You failed.

Please tell the others. If they are only looking for sweet mangoes and wide hips, for immaculately starched boubous collecting red sand as they sweep along, for chivalry and chauvinism wrapped in a confusing dark and handsome package, for “cute” little keepsakes to collect as ransom for my forgotten history, tell them not to come. It is not the right season for mangoes, and I am fresh out of cheap tricks.

All Rights Usurped®

You can probably tell that my mind has been all over the place since I’ve been in Senegal. Or maybe you can’t because I’m so good at acting like I know what I’m doing 🙂 In any case, this particular post isn’t entirely based on my experiences here. It’s more a collection of things over a long period of time that I’ve only recently started seeing with new eyes. Recently I’ve been writing these stream of consciousness not-really-fiction posts but I hope you enjoy reading! 

You do not own the copyright to anger. Righteous indignation is not your birthright. As far as I’m aware, no one handed you a large manila envelope, official wax seal still drying, containing a patent to that particular brand of condescension that you call justice. Thank you, the sentiments you have expressed are a “nice” gesture at best. “Nice”, like a stranger helping you pick up your now ruined papers from the dusty roadside. “Nice”, like someone saying they are sorry for your loss as they rush you off the phone, ignoring your sniffing and tears on the other end of the line. You are not the first, nor will you be the last to be appalled. “How could they do this? How could anyone let this happen? How?”

Let me tell you a secret. No, not here. Not under this sacred tree where women cried out to resolutely silent ancestors for salvation, where old men handed out  wisdom in bite-sized proverb-shaped portions, where tired farmers simply sat and sat until it was time to coax food out of the stubborn dry earth once more. You are not invited to this gathering, not welcome here. Not unless you shed your coat of “knowing better” before you arrive. I repeat, for this is highly important; you are not the first, nor will you be the last to feel the way you do. A host of others before you have come, seen and felt disgust. Bravo, you are able to empathize with your fellow humans. You are indeed, human. Here is your ID Card. Don’t be confused, this does not grant you access to an entire history. You will not immediately understand, not in a week, not in two  months, not in four years. Please try to understand this, these people are aware.

It doesn’t take critically acclaimed documentaries produced by a man in tortoise shell glasses,nor socially conscious bloggers who purchase Fairtrade everything to create awareness. Your concern is appreciated, but you do not have the right to pick and choose where to direct your outrage without bringing an offering of respect, nestled humbly in a bag of kola nuts. You do not get to apportion blame, nor do you earn the right to share in ancestral resentment leveled at former masters. Solidarity grows out of an understanding that someone’s suffering could easily be your own, and as a fellow human being you are deciding to support another human in their struggle, while respecting their agency and their efforts to transform the situation.

I imagine that you are growing more and more perplexed. How does one scold another for caring? Child, and yes, I call you child because in the eyes of this most regal and most ancient land you remain in your earliest stages of infancy. I do not condemn you for caring, again I extend my congratulations. You are indeed, human. But when your caring leads you to shut your ears to any further explanation, or to believe what UN official reports tell you, and what college professors preach as gospel, then your cause is lost. At least you are mature enough to realize that buying a pair of comfortable shoes from a “socially conscious” business creates more problems than it solves. Again, the blogs (and some common sense) have served you well.

Caring, the softest and sweetest of emotions, turns ugly when you do it the way you do. A firm, warm hand on a shoulder heaving with grief turns into a sharp slap across the face. Do you assume that the person you are attempting to comfort does not know the situation they are in? Do you presume to teach someone how to grieve, and how to move on from grieving to re-building? There is a faint waft of supposed superiority on your hot breath. You are angry. How could they? Your anger veils your eyes in thick black mourning cloth. You stuff your ears with cotton, you refuse to listen further. Instead, you decide to do your best to counteract this corrupt, broken-down system you have come to meet. You clap and sing and “Repeat after me!” and you are convinced this is going to blow away the sands of time and exploitation that have settled in the cracks of a once well-oiled machine. Your shaky hands touch wounds they have not yet been taught how to heal, reach places they should not be authorized to enter, and you go home satisfied that you have done an amazing thing.

Again, this is not an indictment on your actions. It is not your fault. Your arrival was marked with outstretched arms, with people ready to bestow undeserved responsibility on your naive shoulders. Where you were met with quiet dignity and resistance, you failed to recognize it. These people all need help, whether they know it or not. And yet you long to feel at home. The fanfare of culture entices you, as it is prone to do. Perhaps you feel as though you are peeping through the window, watching a party you were not invited to. Or perhaps you misplaced your invitation, or you misunderstood it. You wade through market after market, sifting through trinkets and fabrics and hair pieces. With the right costume you can integrate…right? Admiration or appropriation, where does one draw the line?

Come, child, sit down on this mat. You have much to learn. Come, let me show you how to tie that wrapper tightly around your waist. And you, with your sun-burnished skin, you also have much to learn. Your language rises and falls with the same musical cadence, your round hips sway to the same rhythm, but you remain a child. Come. You are welcome.