The Senegalese Miracle
- Africa, Senegal
- Personal Essay
I was one of 60 new Peace Corps trainees who landed at Dakar-Yoff Airport at midnight, excited and tired. As we stood jammed in the aisles, the plane door finally opened and the hot night air blasted through the cabin. The airport looked more like a hangar with a baggage conveyor belt winding through its middle. Peace Corps officials waited there to meet us, help us with baggage, and shepherd us through customs. Outside, wiry Senegalese porters loaded our bags onto the tops of two rickety buses, while clots of taxi drivers leaning against yellow, broken-down cars smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and spoke a language I'd never heard before. Beggars, black figures clad in rags, stood against the airport wall like a row of exclamation marks. Once the bags were tied down with ropes on top of the buses, apprenti, or drivers' helpers, ushered us into the vehicles, where we sat on metal benches covered in vinyl with bits of sponge peeking through the rips. In a roar of unmuffled engines, we were off.
Skirting the city of Dakar, we trundled down a dark country road, or so it seemed, until I learned that this road was, in fact, one of the country's few national routes. Low-hanging clouds hid the dark sky. All I could see from the window were shadows of queer baobab trees, massive, with clumps of leaves bursting from their thick limbs. The smells assailed me. They say that the way you react to the smells of Africa will determine whether you love or hate it. Among the odors I detected peanuts, mucky earth, an elusive scent of the sea, the occasional waft of night-blooming jasmine, the not unpleasant body odor of a young Senegalese man sitting behind me, and, from somewhere, cinnamon. I found it all delicious; I loved it.
Bam! An explosion rocked the bus. The bus careened from one side of the road to the other. My heart in my throat, the thought flashed through my mind of an ignoble end to my adventure before it ever began. The driver wrestled with the steering wheel and after what seemed like a long roller-coaster ride, the bus coasted into a swale. A flat tire. We filed off the bus so the crew could jack it off the ground and change the tire.
As we milled around by the roadside, sticking close to each other, a full moon parted the curtain of clouds and flooded the sky with light. It illumined a nearby cement-block house with a pointed straw roof, in front of which a group of people squatted around a fire. Their faces shone in the blaze—angled cheekbones, chiseled noses, high-curved brows, white glints of eyes. One by one, the people rose and strolled toward us, men in flowing robes, women in wraparound skirts and long matching blouses or T-shirts that fell around their narrow hips. A tall, slim young man in a white boubou led the others. He greeted us in French. As the only person in our group who already spoke French, I approached him. He introduced himself as Mohammed Sy and said that he and his neighbors were amazed to see so many foreigners clustered in front of their compound. I explained who we were and why we were there. He had heard of Peace Corps. As we stood there waiting for the flat tire to be fixed, I translated his words for the other Volunteers who huddled around.
Mohammed expressed gratitude for the sacrifices he presumed we had made to come and help his country. He turned to a young woman behind him and spoke words incomprehensible to me, to which she responded by leaving the group and heading back to the house. A few minutes later she moved like a shadow through the darkness carrying a platter of small green oranges, which she proffered to us with a serious face. Her sober expression made me wonder if the fruit came from some vital store that would otherwise have fed her family or been sold in the roadside market.
Mohammed confirmed my suspicions when he told us something that, in time, would become a familiar phenomenon to us all, though at that moment it sounded like a mystery. Mohammed called it the miracle of Senegal.
"Like most Africans," he explained in elegant French, "we are poor, but we believe in sharing. Whatever I have never belongs to me alone, but to my family and all my brothers and sisters who have less. You will find families of, say, 10, with only one person who works, who earns some money. That person will feed his entire family on his meager income and send as many children as possible to school. He will keep nothing for himself."
Mohammed held up his hand to us, in a biblical posture. "But that is not the miracle," he continued. "The miracle happens when others besides the immediate family come into the household—needy relatives, children whose parents cannot feed them. Then the same person with the same income feeds 20, instead of 10. And everyone eats. Everyone survives." He laughed. "It's a miracle, n'est-ce pas?"
The bus driver called to us; the tire was fixed. Everyone shook hands with Mohammed and we climbed back into the bus, setting off again into the night. Mohammed's miracle echoed in my ears, not yet understood, but I would remember it countless times during the coming years until I too learned to share my bread, my space, my strength with people who had less. Where I was coming from, that would be a miracle in itself.