You know, sometimes I forget I’m in West Africa. It’s amazing how your brain can organize your world into normalcy after a set amount of time. Every morning, I walk through sand and car exhaust from buses from the 1950’s, and I think to myself, well, I AM in the city, after all.
This Tuesday, I got my world rocked again.
My ISP is called “Soul Medicine: The Role of Traditional Senegalese Music in a Therapeutic Context.” So, I’ve been researching and learning quite a bit of traditional music and how it can be used for therapeutic purposes in Senegalese culture. I never expected to come up with such a wealth of information as I have: all unexpected and completely fascinating.
I mentioned in my last post that I was going to attend a traditional exorcism ceremony called ndep. To describe ndep could take as long as 200 pages (think: the literature I’ve buried my nose in for the past week and a half), but in essence, it is a ceremony to please one’s rab. Rab is a spirit that lives within all of us. Yes, you too! ;-) Everyone has a different rab. Sickness and particularly infertility are thought to be maladies that result from a displeased rab. Occasionally, a person can become possessed by his rab, and if so, the ndep ceremony is created to first, appease the rab and end its possession of the individual, and second, please the rab through offerings of dance, music, and animal sacrifice. There are many steps and it can take up to a week. There was supposed to be a ceremony in Rufisque, and I was going to try to catch a little bit of it.
Those ndep plans fell through, as plans in this country often do. And unfortunately, ndep ceremonies are very difficult to find, let alone have access to. Instead, I was going to interview a ndepkat, or the leader of the ceremony. My professor, Mamebineta Fall, knew of some in Rufisque, and we decided that it would be at least helpful if I could interview a ndepkat to get a better idea of the role that traditional music plays in ndep. We got in a taxi to head to Rufisque, about an hour away from Dakar, and en route, Mamebineta called the ndepkat only to find that she was no longer in Rufisque. We both tutted in disappointment, though this was not a grand surprise. “Les Senegalais, they don’t respect appointments,” Mamebineta sighed. But then—a miracle. Senabou Ndiaye, the ndepkat, explained that she was actually in Mbour because there was a ceremony happening that evening. We looked at each other, and I said, “Let’s go to Mbour.”
Mbour is about 3 hours away from Dakar. We headed to Colobane, where we took a 7-seat taxi into the brush. The taxi was practically falling apart. There were no seatbelts for the passengers, and the driver slung his over his shoulder without attaching it (there was no buckle) as if that would protect him somehow. My door didn’t quite shut all the way, and the handle was a shoestring that they’d attached to the lever, so to open it, the driver had to pull on both the shoestring and the handle outside. Mamebineta added dryly, “I think we picked the best taxi,” and I laughed, glad that she found it a little abnormal. I thought, wow. What a girl will do for a little adventure. We packed in with 5 others. I’d forgotten to wear leggings under my pagne and my bare thigh was against the man next to me, but I shot him the most violent of glares when he asked me if I was married with a sparkle in his eye, and then we didn’t have any more problems for the rest of the ride. Roops!
We arrived in Mbour and took another seven-seat taxi an hour into the brush. The air became increasingly dry and yellow, and the heat was absolutely stifling. We got to the village center, and we waited for a horse cart to take us the rest of the way. There, we met Mamebineta’s aunt, a woman whose voice and overall personality made her one of those infectious types—the ones who make your world seem lighter. She was elderly and skinny on top, but her belly protruded outward so much that she practically looked as if she was with child. Her osteoporosis has progressed so much that she curved into herself, and she wore a fluffy boubou with puffy sleeves and a ruffled, free-flowing skirt. The way she moved with that skirt and that belly, she reminded me of a cartoon mushroom fairy. Her eyes were glazed over with cataracts, but they were some of the more joyful eyes I’ve looked into in my life. What amazes me about these women is the amount of joy and power they possess at the same time.
She discussed the price with our horse driver with her chin lifted and her scratchy voice raised, demanding that he give me a good deal. “She’s not a tourist,” she huffed. “She’s not a toubab. She’s a student.” Next thing I knew, I was riding on the back of a wooden cart another hour into the brush. This land was completely barren for the most part. Tufts of life exist far into the distance: you can see a village surrounded by straw fencing, or perhaps an abandoned baobab tree every 100 meters. The world here is so flat and expansive that you can see the curve of the globe where the sky meets the earth. The pace of the ride seemed to mirror that of Senegalese life. All three of us, three women of different generations, with a slight grimace on our faces from the sun, held on tight to the sides of the cart as it rocked from side to side. We were mostly quiet, resigned to the bumps and stops, and we stared forward, peaceful and steadfast. I was never so unconcerned about time passing.
When we got to the village, I was met by several older women who took my hands and welcomed me inside. They served Mamebineta and I cebuyapp—or rice and beef. The leg of the cow I’m pretty sure I was eating was sitting in a tub of water near the front of the hut. Pieces of its snout were laid out to dry in the sun. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the ndepkat, Senabou Ndiaye, her younger sister, and the woman for whom the ceremony was being held. The interview was in Wolof with Mamebineta translating my French, so until the videotapes are translated into French transcripts, I won’t know the entirety of what was said. The only clear answer I received was when I asked the question, “Do you think that music has the capability to access the spiritual world?” Senabou looked me in the eyes and nodded yes, with such intensity that I felt almost uncomfortable. She had Mamebineta translate that she had adopted me as her granddaughter, and that I would always be a part of her family.
The ndep ceremony was absolutely mind-blowing. I cannot give all of the details because of its sacred nature; to do so would be disrespectful. But suffice it to say that I was absolutely in shock. There was a man who eventually became possessed by his own rab, a serpent spirit, according to one of the women who whispered in my ear as I watched, wide-eyed. This man, not more than 18, threw his lean body in the most impossible of poses, and eventually dived headfirst into the sand face down, his body following and pushing his head forward into a slither. He slithered toward me somewhat and I was about ready to sprint in the other direction, but the women sang to him and held him, and eventually he recovered, crumpled up on a prayer mat outside of the circle.
I thought, my God. The world is a mystery to all those who live in it. Somewhere, someone is drinking chai tea and watching Modern Family reruns…and meanwhile, this man is slithering face down in hot sand.
After the ceremony, we drank water and sat around in the dark on old mattresses until miraculously, there was a car going to Dakar. Mamebineta and I got home at around midnight, incredulous. Neither of us could have expected the day we shared together. I’m incredibly lucky to have had the chance to see ndep, let alone the music portion of it! So I have heard many times since returning, no other student has been lucky enough to catch an actual ceremony.
I’ve been realizing how much of Senegal is still new and beautiful to me, even after three months. It’s overwhelming to think about how much I’ve learned, grown, and experienced in that time just the same.
There’s a man named Assan next to SIT who owns a little restaurant where you can get an enormous plate of cebujen for around a dollar. Yesterday, I went to eat lunch there after a long day in Ouakam. I came late, so he gave me what was left of the rice and two fish. I sat there on that wooden bench talking to him for nearly an hour, picking off the fish with my fingers and making balls of rice with my palms. He said, you should always try to move. You should always try to know more about the world. I heard his words and thought of the guilt I’ve felt about my own privilege here, how I’ve wondered whether it’s more compassionate to stay put rather than unintentionally misunderstand another culture. I thought of the man in the blue robes who was so angry because he thought I was taking something from him.
I said, but doesn’t it make you feel guilty that others won’t have the same opportunities? He replied, “If you have the means, then you need to move. People here, they’re stuck in their world views. You came to Senegal, and you learned more about the world and about yourself, and you’ll be changed for it. And you’ll do good things with that knowledge. Me, I always try to move. I go back to the villages, I invite foreigners to stay in my home. You learn something every time, and you understand. You don’t get stuck. If you take nothing from me, remember, I told you to keep moving. Faut bouger.”
In less than three weeks, I’m going to go back to the United States, where I don’t have to confront my ethnicity, gender, privilege, and skin color every day. I think that my greatest fear about returning is that I will forget. After his words, I am feeling a little more at peace. There are a million ways to keep moving.