I was livid. I shot another accusing glance at the uniformed young man sitting on his comfortable chair outside the bank. “Fad seeda,” he said calmly. Wait a little. “Jooni jooni di wadtat. Jooni jooni.” Very soon it will be fixed. Very soon. He kept pouring his attaya from one glass to another with great flourish, building up the foam. Attaya is the most Senegalese of Senegalese traditions – it is normally a 3-minute task to boil tea leaves and sugar in water, but enough ceremony is added here to stretch it into an hours-long afternoon activity that cannot be rushed.
I looked at the sun, uncomfortably close to the western horizon. “Mi waawaa fadde nannde fuf!” I exclaimed haughtily. I can’t wait all day! “Nannge fataata haygooto. Mi foti hootde jooni jooni. A wii’ii ‘jooni jooni’ wahktuji didi to baawo. A rimi!” The sun waits for no one. I need to go home very soon. You said “very soon” two hours ago. You lied!
Eight months ago, I’d have never thought I’d chew out an innocent employee. Polite Barbara is still a part of me, somewhere, but she’s obscured by an ever-thickening layer of Kadiatou, and Kadiatou’s a bitch. The employee was unmoved by my tantrum. “Wonaa lob,” he said. Don’t be mad. He kept pouring attaya, the expression on his face making it clear that he couldn’t care less whether I was mad or not.
Beside me, the bakery erupted in screams again. Someone must have scored a goal in whatever Africa Cup match was currently going on. The young man lifted his head, like a guard dog catching a scent, and dashed inside to investigate. The bakery next door was crowded with young men gathered around a 90s-era box TV whose screen couldn’t have been more than 12 inches. I could barely make out the tiny figures dashing around the soccer field in the screen, but that didn’t seem to deter any of the spectators.
In a few seconds, the uniformed man emerged and told me the new score. “Haa,” I agreed, hoping the expression on my face made it clear that I didn’t care. I’d heard a theory that the Africa Cup was behind the power outages that’d been afflicting Velingara the last few days. During an important match, everyone turned on their TVs and radios at the same time, overwhelming the grid. I didn’t know if there was any truth to it, but either way I was prepared to hold a grudge against soccer. It was soccer’s fault the ATM had to be reset in the first place. It was soccer’s fault I was waiting.
I stretched my legs in front of me and leaned over my knees, touching my toes, trying to alleviate the nagging pain in my butt. My thighs had quickly adapted to my biking regiment here, building up muscle until my weekly 30K bike ride and from Velingara was no longer difficult, but my flat Midwestern behind still hurt after a few hours on a bike seat. I took a couple deep, calming breaths, but that only made me madder, as the bakery next door was emitting sweet buttery pastry smells 300 CFA out of my reach. I was hungry, I was tired, and it was looking like I still had to bike another 15K to get home, since I didn’t have 400 CFA for a car.
I had been penniless for about a week at this point. The past few times I’d gone to Velingara the ATM had been broken, too, which didn’t bother me much, since I could just kept stretching the little money I had. Now, however, I was alaa haymbuudu, flat broke, and it was really starting to hurt. I could no longer afford my normal bean-and-mayonnaise breakfast sandwiches. I had to go to a dennabo (naming ceremony) empty-handed, a major faux-pas for the rich toubab. I couldn’t even pay the 100 CFA to charge my phone at the town’s solar charger, so I’d had to ration my usage to make the battery last. Earlier that afternoon, Liz, one of the volunteers in Velingara, had been nice enough to check the bank to make sure the ATM was working before I wasted the hour and the energy biking into her town. I must have gotten there mere minutes too late. The uniformed man had told me to sit and wait, that he was sure the ATM would be working again soon. “Miin poti la machine redemarrage, quoi," he had explained in a mix of bad French and good Pulaar. I had imagined the restart process for my laptop – five minutes, max. “Awa,” I had said cheerily. OK. I could wait. I took a seat on the edge of what had probably formerly been a garden planter, but was now just another container for garbage.
As the next two hours passed, hanger and irritation set in. Every 15-20 minutes, the uniformed man would encourage me it would just be a few more minutes. Finally, I decided I could wait no more. I calculated the amount of time needed to bike home vs. the amount of light left in the day and decided I needed to leave immediately. Not only was the potholey road difficult to traverse by flashlight, but many cars here do not come equipped with headlights, and as it got darker it got more likely that we might crash. There were also rumors of bandits that came out after dark, not to mention the hyenas and baboons. I said a few more impolite words to the guard, told him he was lazy and a liar, and that I was very angry. He laughed at my bad Pulaar and waved goodbye.
I biked home as fast as I could, racing against the sun. I finally pedaled into my village at late twilight, out of breath, tired, sweaty, hungrier than ever – and still broke.
“Sabaly!” called a voice as I coasted by the middle school. I put down my feet to brake, Flintstones style, since I hadn’t had money to get my brakes repaired at the local mechanic.
“Mballo,” I said, recognizing the speaker, a friendly old man who could usually be found under the shade tree by the middle school.
“Sabaly,” he repeated.
“Mballo,” I said, touching my right hand to my chest in an expression of respect. This continued several more times, each of us stating the last name of the other. Finally satisfied, he moved on.
“Horo jahno-daa?” he asked. Where were you?
“I went to Velingara,” I said in Pulaar.
“Oh! That is far!” he replied. “How were the people of Velingara? Were they in peace?”
“Sort of,” I answered. He smiled again and tilted his head. I was going off-script here. I was supposed to say “Jam tan,” peace only, and move on.
“I don’t have any money,” I explained. “And the machine at the bank was broken.” He clicked his tongue in sympathy and nodded twice. For some reason I continued, compelled by his kind body language and serene smile. Before I knew it, I had vented all my frustrations of the whole awful afternoon at him. “And now it is dark and I’m tired and I’m hungry and I still don’t have any money and the guard lied to me!” I finished.
Mballo smiled. “Di satti, kii,” he said. It’s hard indeed. “Life here is hard, Sabaly. Don’t be mad.”
I wished I had more time to talk, but it was almost completely dark now, dark enough that I needed to walk my bike because it was no longer safe to ride it.
“Oh, no! I will lay here tonight.” He waved his hand to indicate the space under the shade tree.
I was flabbergasted. “What?! Why?!” I asked, hoping that I had misunderstood.
“I guard the school,” he said. They say they will pay me jooni jooni, but the money does not come.” He shrugged, content. “What can I do? Life is hard.”
My white guilt, always at a low simmer here, erupted into a furious boil. I looked at my friend’s clothes, realizing that they might be the only ones he had. I looked at the smooth dry dirt underneath the tree, worn down by his sleeping there for months. I noted his lack of a mosquito net – his lack of a blanket – he didn’t even have a plastic mat to sleep on. I felt disgusted and ashamed of myself, self-conscious of the privilege I take for granted far too often. How could he be so happy while I had felt so persecuted?
I wished Mballo a good evening and walked the rest of the way home in a daze, reframing the day’s events as a Senegalese might have seen them. True, I didn’t have any cash, but neither does anybody else here. I have a good, kind family that gives me food for free – I have a working bike that brings me where I need to go – I have my health. Even when I’m broke, I’m still incalculably rich. I need to try harder to remember that.