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a drum beat with a purpose

Photo by Micah LeMasters, Temanto Samba Senegal

Temanto Samba, Senegal

November, 2017

The first thing that you notice are the birds. There are just so many of them. They were everywhere and I had no idea what kinds they were. Outside of a few reasonably educated guesses at order and family, I was completely lost—just throwing darts into family trees. By the time I arrived in Temanto Samba, a small village in southern Senegal near the Guinean border, I was getting used to the idea of being lost in Africa. I have, at best, a beginners understanding of French and nothing when it comes to Pular or Wolof. Every conversation I am capable of starts at ends with hello. Years of living in Madagascar has accustomed me to the bad roads, cramped cars and the idea that all foreigners speak French. I came prepared for the heat and the dust, the ‘close proximity to animals and livestock’ and the small buckets of water that you dump over your head every few hours to fend off the above. However, I was totally unprepared for the birds.

They come at dusk, endlessly sweeping over the West African landscapes and alighting in the West African trees that remind me of history and earth and the slow passing of time. On my first day in Temanto Samba I walked a few hundred yards outside of the loosely formed border of the village and sat under an ancient baobab tree to watch the birds come home. The first ones were long and slender and came fluttering in with their long tail feathers flipping against the wind. A few carried small worms in their hooked beaks. They landed in a tree just in front of me and sang out for more to come. A flock of songbirds came in low and rushed through the tangle of trees I sat amongst. A crane appeared, stalking through the tall grass and only half flew away when it noticed me. There were birds that made sounds like one imagines a monkey would make and others that sat high in the branches and hooted like owls. I didn’t know a single one of them and I was happy for it. I was refreshed by the thought of there being so much more out there to discover—so much more to learn. I noticed that the small brown fruit hanging from a tree nearby was not fruit at all but rather dozens upon dozens of small nests that that hung like so many fragile Christmas ornaments.

As dusk settled in I made my way back into the village and found a seat next to Mamadou. He was preparing the third or fourth serving of Ataya (incredibly strong and sugary green tea served in shot glasses as part of an elaborate and beautiful ceremony that takes place repeatedly throughout the day and night). Next to him, leaning on the wall, was his kora, a traditional West African instrument that is half harp and half lute whose body is made from a very large calabash gourd covered in animal skin. When he finished with the tea he would go back to plucking out the traditional melodies and songs that so effortlessly come from his fingers and tempers the cadence of his voice.

Nearby was Ami, the lively matron of the compound who greets me with her beautiful smile no fewer than fifteen times in a day. She was hauling firewood toward the three large rocks that support the pot that she would cook our evening meal in. Her niece, originally from Guinea, was pounding a basket full of beans in a large wooden mortar. She was pounding the dried beans with a three foot tall wooden pestle and would switch hand every three strokes. On the seventh she would intentionally hit the side of the mortar with the pestle and stir the bean pods. I was transfixed by the motion and the rhythm and the grace of it. It was so utilitarian—a drum beat with a purpose.

Dinner would be a simple affair of beans served with fresh village bread that we would eat out of a communal bowl placed the floor. You eat quietly and quickly in Senegal but not without ritual and ceremony. There are ways to sit and ways not to and one can tell a lot by the way a person leaves their spoon on the side of a bowl. After dinner the kids burned bunches of fresh peanuts in the yard. The dried leaves catch quickly and crackle as they explode like cheap fireworks. When the fire burns itself out children dig in the ashes for the charred shells and put them in an old margarine tub. When they finished collecting them they brought them to the old men that sit on the porch and quietly talk as the stars slowly populate the sky.

I go to the well to take water. It is very deep and you can barely see the bottom in the daytime and at night it is completely black. Throwing the bucket down into the darkness feels like throwing a bucket into the abyss. I learn to hold the rope in a way that allows me to feel the slight pull as the bucket completely submerges. I love the weight of it and the feel of the the dry rope as I pull it up, hand over hand. The sound of the water leaking through a crack in the bucket resonates like music in an empty church. The water splashes cool and clean on my toes as I fill my bucket. Each time I throw the bucket down and here the splash I think of how lucky I am to know that each bucketful of water I take will be replaced—a gift from the earth. As I bring the bucket up the long way of the dark well, I think of Rumi and wonder if tonight’s moon will stay out to greet tomorrow’s sun.

I stand, dripping wet, under the baobab tree behind my hut and get lost in the stars that stretch across infinity, I notice a lone bird descending toward the bunch of trees that I’ve come to know and there, in that little village in the south of Senegal, I start to feel a little less lost.