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Photo by Elke Schmidt, Senegal Bridge Year Program.

Yoff’s October Song

Every morning at 7h00 the clip-clop, clip-clop of horse hooves on pavement floats up to my open second story window. The charette drivers of Yoff are making their rounds and I have memorized what the noises mean. The vegetable cart. The fish cart. The ice cart. The meat cart. Construction workers with a cart full of rebar hurrying to the other side of the quartier. Every day starts like a the same song, each take slightly different, the same percussion of hooves, the same voices I’ve come to expect overlapping in the Yoff morning orchestra. Sometimes I close my eyes for a second before getting out of bed, and imagine what it would be like to live two centuries earlier, when the sound of horse hooves was never punctuated by the growl of a combustion engine.

And then I hear it. The dreaded trash truck, oozing slowly down the sand-covered streets of Yoff Layenne like a mechanical creature from a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. The prolonged, relentless blaring of the horn fills my heart with a sort of dread and urgency. Women and men swarm out of the houses like insects from an anthill that is being rained on, wearing their house clothes, undershirts and t-shirts and old flip flops, hair not yet immaculately in place, babies tied hastily onto backs with two-meter fabric in colorful prints. People greet each other hastily, not yet awake, potato peels and onion skins and plastic wrappers spilling out of trash bags and buckets.

When we first arrived here, I too would throw something on over my pajamas and rush downstairs carrying an overflowing rubbish bin. Its arrival was unpredictable. Its would cut into your breakfast, you dinner, your sleep, your Skype meeting. The trash truck would derail your train of thought, interrupt your shower, stop your language class, and demand to be fed. The people of Yoff serve the garbage truck… it does not serve us.

Not anymore. Not at my house, anyway. It’s been almost two weeks since I took out the trash, and the bin in my kitchen is almost empty. Before heading back to work on organic agricultural projects in rural Senegal, my co-instructor Berta set up a compost on my balcony in a big blue plastic bin that she poked holes in with a heated screwdriver. I have a large sack of sawdust from the carpenter down the street to mix with the organic waste from my kitchen. My balcony garden has room to grow— for now it is a cherished pot of lemongrass and a few drought resistant plants. And now that I am composting, I am no longer in servitude to this ruthless garbage truck that terrorizes the streets of Yoff.

This compost feels like a victory. Not just because scientists are now recognizing that organic waste doesn’t decompose properly in landfills (they’re finding 25-year-old corncobs and grapes in perfectly recognizable shape). Not just because microgardening can help combat drought and desertification and create green spaces to cool the hot urban streets of Dakar. The compost, for me, is also a deeply personal victory.

The production of rich, fertile earth to mix into potting soil is (forgive me for my puns) one of the most grounding things that has happened in my life in a while. For me, it symbolizes my ability to put down roots this year, a huge step towards personal growth for me. I don’t wish to soil any idealized images you might have of the lifestyle that many of us Dragons instructors live, but I can’t resist giving you the “dirt”.

In the past twelve months alone, I have had the incredible privilege of working and/or traveling in (counting backwards) Senegal, the United States, Myanmar, Thailand, Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal, and India. And the truth is, while for most of our Bridge Year students this nine-month program in Senegal is an adventure that has uprooted them from everything they know, for me, nine months seemed like a terrifyingly long time to stay put. I’ve been doing this work for about six years and I think at this point I suffer from what I’ll call the “classic Dragons instructor fears”— the fear of boredom, the fear of commitment, and above all, the fear of doing work that doesn’t constantly feel transcendent and/or profoundly significant. The reality is that when given almost any choice between stability and adventure, I almost always choose adventure. I can attest (as my tongue trips over a jumble of Wolof, Burmese, French, and Spanish) that this is sometimes to my detriment.

So you can perhaps understand why the compost is exciting. Heck, it’s even thrilling to be able to leave my shampoo in the shower and unpack my toothbrush from its case. My apartment is filling up with living symbols of things you can’t have when you’re living out of a backpack: potted plants, a full-size kora (an unwieldy instrument that you definitely can’t take trekking), paintings on the walls, a small but respectable library, a sewing machine, a supply of my favorite spices… and, of course, the compost bin. Being stationary is the most exotic adventure I’ve had in years. Our little Bridge Year family is developing our own routine of life. We bake cakes. We go to service sites in the mornings. We do fun things on weekends. We have exercise schedules.

And that’s it, the biggest privilege of a (slightly more) sedentary life— making our own little song and becoming a part of the rhythm of Yoff, the clip-clop of hooves, the muezzin’s song five times a day, enormous plates of rice, fish, and vegetables cooked in oil and spices and garnished with lime and tamarind, lunches eaten in the chaotic joy of a big West African family, hours spent lying in front of a fan with your belly full of rice, unable to move in the hottest part of the day, buying local coconut yogurt and eating it during language class, the golden hours before sunset where it is cool enough to go on a walk, people coming back from work, kids running everywhere as they get out of school and roam the streets playing football and shrieking with laughter, buying popcorn and donuts, the sunset prayers, the quiet walk to dinner at Babacar’s house at dusk as women and men freshly washed and draped in white float to the mosque, the sound of sandals scuffing the sandy pavement, the low murmur of greetings, the soft distant roar of the ocean on the other side of the mausoleum, the ocean breeze from my stairwell, the sweet feeling of a cooling bucket shower before bed, and…. clip clop, clip clop, clip clop, the next morning, and the next. Again the same song. Again the same Yoff orchestra, an orchestra where we all now have parts.