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Photo by Elke Schmidt, Senegal Bridge Year Program.

Sama Baay (My Dad)

My father here is blind. He wasn’t always, but—I don’t know how long ago—glaucomas took his sight away. In a society that so completely revolves around human interaction and community, I can only imagine how isolating blindness can be.

One of my favorite memories of Senegal is our first meal in this country. It was probably 3AM, and we had just driven away from the (recently deceased) Yoff Airport in a bus that I thought was incredibly cramped and uncomfortable. Certain other types of transportation have taught me otherwise.

It was dark, and when we finally arrived at our destination—a small Islamic community along the coast of northern Dakar—we were greeted with a welcome song in a brightly-lit daara and a delicious meal out of giant communal bowls. And I ate with a spoon off the same plate as four other people. And over the next few weeks, eating with a spoon off the same plate as four other people became comfortable. It’s funny how quickly I fell in love with that new way of eating, how quickly it became so natural for me to push food around with a spoon—then to push food around with my hand. It’s funny how soon I’ll have to go back to my old way of eating—with my own plate, sitting a table instead of on the ground, not so easily pushing my extras into the spoon of a still-hungry neighbor.

One of the first things I noticed about my father was how he never ate out of the communal bowl with the rest of my family. No—he eats off to the side in a chair, his own plate, his own spoon, sometimes in a completely different room. I can’t imagine being part of that social way of eating for forty, fifty, sixty years, and then suddenly having to eat alone.

I also noticed that he spent a lot of time like that—alone. Alone by himself in a room, mostly sitting. Sometimes sitting outside. Always holding his prayer beads. I’ve only seen him leave our compound once in the entire three and a half months I’ve lived here.

And while my experience in Senegal has been so colorful and so focused on sight and pictures and buying new fabric because it is so beautiful and patterned, I wondered what his experience was like now. And so, with my limited Wolof, I started asking him Lan nga def tey? every night before dinner.

What did you do today? And I know it doesn’t seem like much, and it probably isn’t, but I love hearing about my dad’s day. At first, he would only say Maangi toog rekk.

I sat only.

I think he probably assumed that at some point I would just stop asking, but I didn’t. And then, at some point, he started giving me better answers—

Today I showered. I prayed. I talked to a few people on the phone. I listened to a soccer game on television.

When I spend an entire day out of the house, he tells me what he ate for lunch (usually ceebu jen), how good it was (neex na torop), how many times he drank attaya. And I don’t think that my dad does any more or any less than he used to, I think just having someone to talk to about his day makes him look for the little things that made today different. And isn’t that what this whole thing is about? I’m here long enough for it to get boring sometimes, and I’m glad that it does. I don’t think I could handle nine months straight of totally-exciting, never-settling-down, Wolof-infused madness. And even though I haven’t been here long, and I won’t be here much longer, I’ve made up some sort of daily grind that sometimes makes it feel like I’ve been here forever. But then I sit down to journal (something I’ve managed to do every single day these past four months), and it’s no miracle that I can always find something to write about.

Also, can I just add this real quick?

I’m pretty short. Like not-even-five-feet-tall, rocking-six-inch-heels-almost-every-single-day-in-the-US short. My Senegalese name is Fama, and my dad calls me Fama Ndama, which not only rhymes but also translates directly to Short Fama. So, yeah. That’s me!

I just think it’s really hilarious because my dad has no idea how incredibly short I am. He just takes everyone else’s word for it—and I mean, he’s not wrong.