Wrapped Under the Mango Tree

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Backpack Nation Writing Contest Winner
July 2004
Wrapped Under the Mango Tree

by Katie Krueger

It was Christmas day when I jumped out of the bush taxi on a sandy road near the Siné Saloum Delta in Senegal. However, to me that simply meant another day to let the world greet me as I explored it. When I am traveling, every day holds so much potential that it has the power to be as remarkable as Christmas.

I reached the edge of Yayeme, a small Seerer village with about 80 large farming families, and asked two men for directions. They walked me directly to the campement, where a young man welcomed us in and introduced himself as Diène N’Dour. His toothy grin lit up his dark face as he smiled to shake my hand. He invited me to sit in the shade while he explained that the accommodations were basic. The villagers had no electricity and hand-pulled all their water from wells so life stayed pretty simple. I happily accepted and said that I would only be staying one or two nights because I was headed to the Gambia.

A refreshing bucket shower washed away the fatigue from the morning’s bus trip and stimulated my appetite so I asked Diène where I could buy some eggs and bread for dinner. He hesitated thoughtfully before he answered. “As it is Christmas day and you are so far from you family, I would like to invite you to eat dinner with my family and spend the holiday with us,” he said.

I was touched by his offer, but hesitant to intrude on his family’s celebration. I politely thanked him for the invitation, but told him I did not want to be a burden. I would happily make myself an omelet and spend the day writing letters to friends back home.

“Katie,” he pleaded. “Its Christmas! My mother has cooked her best and would be honored to have you eat with us. Leave the letters until tomorrow and come make some new friends at my house.” I was flattered by his insistence, and happily accepted.

When the afternoon heat had passed, we walked to his family’s house. We arrived at a small, fenced-in plot of land that held three cement huts with palm leaf roofs, a few mango trees, and an assortment of farm animals. Under the largest mango tree sat a group of more than ten people, each of whom smiled warmly and immediately came to shake my hand as Diène introduced me. Before I had met everyone, his youngest sister brought out a large bowl of yassa poulet. The family and I sat around the periphery of the bowl, eating together as a group. When we had each stuffed ourselves to the limit, we spread out comfortably in the shade and spent the rest of the afternoon talking in a mixture of French, Wolof, Seerer and English. If my conversations became muddled because of language barriers, whomever I was talking to made it a point to slow down and give me the time I needed to express myself thoroughly.

Around the time the moon rose to salute the setting sun, I thanked everyone for making me feel at home. Walking back to the campement, I realized that they had gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable and as a result I felt like a member of their family. Before going to bed that night, I thanked Diène profusely for the unforgettable day and for sharing his wonderful family with me. I said he was lucky to be surrounded by so much love, and politely asked if everyone we met today shared the three small huts I saw.

“Since my father died, it has been my four sisters, one brother, two uncles, my mother and the goats, pigs and chickens living there,” he chuckled. “But here in Senegal we do not like to count the people in each house, because you never know when a visitor might come. Today, for example, we had one more person than yesterday.” He winked and wished me a goodnight’s sleep.
– – –

After eight months living in Dakar, I will leave Senegal in June without ever having visited the Gambia. I ended up spending my entire December vacation in Yayeme, and returned regularly over the next five months. Diène and I have become good enough friends to discover that we share a sense of humor, a belief in destiny, and an optimistic curiosity about the world. Each time I went to Yayeme to visit my friend his family opened up their lives and welcomed me in. Their limitless teranga (Wolof for hospitality) allowed me to feel at home and gave me the unique chance to explore rural Senegalese life from the inside.

Each act of kindness in Yayeme outdid the previous one. People gave me whatever they could to make me feel welcome. One night, for example, when I had the opportunity to see a traditional Seerer wrestling match, Diène’s mother lent me one of her best boubous to wear so that I would be dressed appropriately. When I returned it to her the next day, she refused, insisting that I keep it. In addition, I have an ever-growing collection of bracelets and necklaces that were at one time spontaneous gifts from friends in Yayeme. The people who did not have much material wealth shared the most valuable asset of all: their time. Not a day went by in Yayeme without an invitation from a friend to share a meal, drink tea or simply pay a visit to say hello. Each day I spent there was long and full, because it was measured by interactions with people instead of minutes.

The feeling of being part of an extended family followed me out of Yayeme. When in Dakar, I constantly received phone calls from relatives of Diène who had never met me but who called to invite me to dinner or simply to say hello and check in.

Recently, Diène and I were discussing the timeless question facing most 25-year olds around the world: What will I do with my life? As the only breadwinner in his house, Diène told me his dream was to find any work that would pay him enough to build a toilet for his family. He confided that he was worried his job at the campement was soon coming to an end. The owner had realized the sad truth that most tourists prefer more luxurious lodgings and had put the campement up for sale. He feared that his steady income would soon be replaced by a day-to-day scramble to find enough money to feed his family. Quietly, he confided that he hoped he was able to find money for the toilet construction soon, so his aging mother could spent her last days dignified instead of scurrying to the field behind their plot each time nature called.

I arrived in Yayeme on Christmas day and Diène gave me a group of people wrapped in smiles, waiting under a mango tree. When I think of all that his family has given to me since then, I ache to be able to give them something back. One thousand dollars would be enough for the N’Dours to build a toilet for their family and buy seeds to plant full fields, giving them enough food to eat for the year. After having lived in Dakar for eight months, I have several trusted friends to ensure safe delivery of the money. There is no doubt in my mind that any gift that I give Diène’s family would be shared with all of their friends and neighbors to benefit the entire village. Like the traveler who fills her days with possibility, the N’Dour family keeps every day as powerful as Christmas by living in a constant spirit of giving.

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