Back to
Photo by Sophie Singletary

Ndank, ndank

I wait. I wait some more. An hour later I am still waiting for my bus. Another 20 minutes go by. I watch the taxis drive by, occasionally honking, and the bikes weave through the traffic. It’s not that bad today though. I see taxis being worked on and people walking around trying to sell things, anything from sandals, to earbuds, to limes, to cold bags of water. Someone stopped in front of us waiting for the bus offering hats, but we politely said “baax na,” it is good. I watch the women from distant stands sell a variety of food and people walk by dressed in a mix of traditional fabric and modern business attire, young, old, men, women, children. The occasional horse cart. The trees occasionally rifle their leaves in the breeze but they stay mostly calm, as if they are patiently waiting too, and I am grateful for their shade. I make short casual conversation with the old man next to me who is happy I speak Wolof.

In Senegal, I have experienced a lot of waiting. Compared to the hustle and bustle of my American life, cramming everything I possibly could into time I didn’t have, it’s hard for me to wait and not DO anything, just be and notice. In Mouït, we would lay under the big shade tree and wait for a couple hours for ataya, tea, and sometimes fall asleep. We would talk sometimes but also just lay in silence. “Jamm rekk”- it is peace. There was no deadline, no where I had to be except for here. “Mangi fii”- I am here. There is a beauty in just being present. At first, I felt the need to be studying, learning, making conversation, but soon began to realize there is much to learn in silence and just being. I don’t need to fill every second of my life. In my homestay in Ndioukhane, after lunch was finished and I helped wash the dishes, I sipped tea in my chair. Little boys chattered and girls were braiding hair and moms were nursing babies and new people floated in to eat. And at first I felt uncomfortable. Shouldn’t I be doing something, helping with something, asking something, learning something? But they wanted me to sit and just be there with them, present, and soon I let this wash over me, realizing I am learning something after all just by noticing. Moments without words were ok. I felt this peace again in our boat ride as I let my fingers trail through the water aware only of the lapping, broken refraction of light across the water and naked blue sky above, the horizon an imaginary line. “Jamm rekk.” In Dene or Ndioukane, we would lay out late into the night staring at the stars, clearer and more beautiful than anything I have ever seen before, as if I could reach out and touch them and they were twinkling just to tempt me to try. “Jamm rekk.” In Mamelles beach in Dakar, I swam out past the waves until it was just me and the water, watching it crash into the sand then regress, rhythmically and repeatedly. Again, the horizon seemed far away. A grassy, green cliff (rare in sandy Dakar) loomed to my left and the sunlight made it gleam and I felt happy in this cove of paradise.

Now these are obvious moments of peace, of waiting. Pleasurable ones. But let me tell you waiting for a bus for half an hour isn’t as peaceful. Your stomach is growling and you just want to be home for the ceebujen you know your yaay is making and you’re worried a bus might never come and you might miss French and Wolof class etc. The crowded, hot bus ride isn’t much better. It stops every five seconds and right when you think the bus can’t fit another single person, another ten cram in. It takes so long to get home, but you can’t pull out your phone or read because you have to constantly be aware of your surroundings. So you watch and wait. You notice and think.

This waiting is most prevalent, however, in language learning. From the moment we arrived in Senegal, I have wanted desperately to be fluent in French and Wolof. It is so hard when I can’t communicate what I need or everyone is laughing at me when I say something wrong. Or when my family gets into a heated discussion and I have no idea what is going on. Once, I was trying to help cook lunch and my sister was telling me to bring a chair upstairs to sit by her and watch, but first I brought a knife, then the bread container, then finally understood and carried the chair up. I felt very foolish. People on the street try to talk to you because by now we know the greetings but still get confused beyond that. In public spaces I hear so many words that don’t register. At work it is hard to be useful or communicate well because I don’t speak French. Again, I wonder what place I have going into another country without this basic necessity.

However, as more time has gone on, I realize how much I have improved. Yes, there are still days I feel as helpless as I did the first week, but I can hold a basic conversation now. I speak with and joke with my family and learn new words everyday. It’s a process, and like all things that matter in life, it’s in the process that we learn and grow, not the result. I read articles, emails, art descriptions in French at work. I have spent hours reading my younger brother’s story books with him patiently teaching me how to pronounce the French words. We had a taxi driver who was so excited we are learning Wolof and guided us through a conversation. My sisters teach me new words and songs everyday. “Learning just by doing is the best way to learn,” a man I met told me. “Speak what is on your mind and eventually the words will come,” he said and continued to teach me more words. This learning in action forms relationships. Yes, I definitely feel the need to look over notes, read a French textbook and bury myself in studying, but being present in real life has been where I’ve really learned. “Mangi fii”- I am here. And just by being present I have learned.

Trust the process, I typed across the face of my dad’s soccer team T-shirt’s a few years ago. Trust the process, I have told myself on various art projects.

“Ndank ndank mooy japp golo ci naay.”- slowly slowly you can touch the monkey in the bush. This is a Senegalese proverb that recognizes the process that a family friend visiting our house gave to me. If you march to quickly towards the metaphorical monkey you will scare it away. Instead, you must creep slowly towards your goal. This doesn’t mean it’s easy, and I definitely still struggle everyday, but I also try to take in the small moments of beauty and learning, which is much easier some days than others. Which is ok. In the creeping, the process, you learn the most and I just have to trust I will eventually be able to “touch the monkey,” in time.