Last Monday, April 21st, I was on a motorbike with a friend when we hit a child. It was a classic scenario: it’s a beautiful day; the sun is shining, a gentle breeze is blowing from the sea, when a lone, benign, chartreuse ball comes bouncing into the street. But, this time, instead of a profound but brief pang in my heart, a sudden stop and perhaps a disparaging look before my fear fades and I continue silently on my way, we hit the racing child otherwise oblivious of his surroundings. It was too fast, there was no way of stopping it. I cried out as I felt the boy’s tiny ribs hitting my foot, whipping past him.
They day before was Easter. I woke up and called my kora professor, Edou, one of the only christians I know. There had been hoards of children at Edou’s place that afternoon and when I returned to pick up my motorbike the next day, they had knocked it over, breaking the mirror. Looking at the poor thing, I decided it was finally time to repair it. So I stopped by my friend Khadim’s place. I have found Khadim to be a very trustworthy 30-year-old mechanic and baay fall, a friend of many of my other baay fall bandmates in Sahad & the Natal Patchwork. I stopped there before heading to a rehearsal with a new jazz group that I’ve been singing with called Zal Top Project, to which Khadim told me he would drop me off.
He then told me “les gens vont te regarder quand tu montes cette moto…” (“People are going to look at you when you get on this bike…”) “Pourquoi?” “Parce qu’ils n’ont jamais vue un blanc sur une moto comme ca. “Ah bon?” (“Why?” “Because they have never seen a white person on a bike like this.” “Oh really?”) It was like a turtle out of it’s shell, this bike – no siding, no lights, no mirrors. As exposed and bare as a bike could be. It had good wheels, though, very capable of handling Dakar’s roads. Riding on it was like flying on a levitating stool.
Khadim stopped as fast as possible before leaping off the bike and running to the boy, while I tried to stablize it unsteadily. I was slower to process things than Khadim. I can’t describe the terror I felt in the potential of turning around and seeing the boy dead. Before I turned, I could hear him crying. As horrible as it was, there was a miracle in this cry. A crowd began to form. I finally got the bike steadied to get a better look – he was pretty badly scraped.
It wasn’t my first accident in Dakar. I recognized the boy’s scrapes well from my own knees, still healing, but these were on his head and arms in addition to his legs. People around began to pick him up. Others started surrounding me, asking if I had been the driving and pushing me to get into a cab to the hospital. I watched wide-eyed and stuttering as the family and the boy got into a cab, while Khadim and I remounted his bike. Khadim clearly instructed me that I was to stay with him, though people grew vocally distrustful of us as we got back on that bike together.
We went to a hospital rather far in Centre Ville. On the way there, Khadim told me that kids are often getting hit in that neighborhood because all the families are Guinean and don’t look after their kids properly. “Ca ne serait jamais arrivé s’ils étaient Senegais,” (“This would have never happened if they were Senegalese,”) he said. I couldn’t tell how much of what he was saying was the truth and how much of it was trying to assuage the shaken feeling we were both experiencing. A sheep started to run towards the street as we pulled up to the hospital and we both gasped as Khadim halted the bike. The sheep turned in the other direction, and we laughed in a brief moment of relief.
The cab parked inside the maze of a hospital while we parked the bike outside, leaving us to search for the family. They weren’t too hard to find, though; like bread crumbs a child would leave through the forest to find his way back home, so was there a trail of fresh blood scattered through the hallways leading to the wounded boy.
His name is Ibrahima Diallo. I learned this after shaking his mother’s hand and telling her how sorry I was that this had happened. “C’est pas grave,” (“it doesn’t matter”) she responded, to which Khadim and I glanced at eachother knowing very well that this boy was lucky to be alive. “Naata at la am?” “Six, walla sept?” (“How old is he?” “Six, or seven?”) The father looked up from where he was holding the boy, saying “2006 donc… il a 8 ans.” (“2006 so… he is 8 years old.”)
The boy, his face swelling, kept looking at me. I gently stared back despite my instinct to look away, remembering what my friend Tass had told me about children: something like ‘see all those kids? see how they’re staring at you? danga baax, danga baax.’ (‘… you are good, you are good.’) He was explaining to me why, on our trip to Niodior, an island pretty far south of Dakar, I was the only one that had been invited to eat with Sahad’s parents, while the fairly large group of Senegalese, German, Belgian and French friends ate outside. I’m sure the rest could have joined, but it still felt like a strange honor. Tass told me that the reason why Sahad’s parents wanted to eat with me was because there were so many children around me when we arrived. They were clearly attracted to me, which is an indicator of “nit nu am xol yu rafet” (“people who have beautiful hearts”). According to the Senegalese, children will never touch, let alone look at a truly bad person.
I’ve always liked kids, and maintain some deep relationships with many. In New York, I babysat a remarkably clever boy named George for almost 5 years. I look upon our time learning guitar, reading and playing together fondly. I think of him very often as a little brother and I miss him a lot. Here, Faada’s 4 children, Ata, Penda, Marie, and the littlest that I just call ‘the baby,’ have also come to feel like younger siblings. Since Christmas, I’ve visited his family about once a week, eating dinner, singing and teaching the childfren guitar. I’m surrounded by hundreds of children from all over the world, many of which I know by name, at least a few times a week at the International School. There is nothing like being greeted at work by three or four children hugging you by the waist and legs.
Ibrahima became each and every one of these children the moment that he ran into the street that day. The first thing that came into my mind as I processed the situation, steadying Khadim’s bike, was each of their faces on that pavement… George, Ata, Penda, Marie… My hands begin to shake even writing this nearly two weeks later. But looking at Ibrahima in the hospital, it was as though he had 10 years on that boy who was running in the street just moments ago. No longer tiny and fragile, but stout and tough, hardened. He was lucky – nothing broken, just a lot of scraped surfaces. Still, I know how bad those scrapes hurt and I’m sure he will be afraid of motorcycles for the rest of his life.
Oddly, the night before, I had had a vivid and horrifying dream in which I took part in the death of someone, tangentially. The shock of the gun shot in the dream paralleled that of the moment we hit Ibrahima. The tiles on which the man’s head lay matched those in the hospital. I awoke hysterically crying and already shaken that day, in which there was the most mysterious air of fate. As soon as I returned home that evening, I kept playing various little choices and timing in my mind because it all had such a magnetism about it.
My first instinct when trying to sort this all out was to e-mail Alec, the “glorified roadie,” I mentioned in my last blog entry, whose ability to articulate things has always proved to be very comforting. Senegalese people tend to see things that turn out okay as not worth belaboring; talking about how you’re feeling is generally dismissed as unnecessary and unproductive. My friends and family back home, however, are just as fragile as I, and with the added distance, it’s more difficult for them to understand. No one could really understand what that day was like besides Khadim and I, but I knew few could come as close as Alec, who returned to Belgium a few weeks ago. “Ultimately it remains that timing and choices you made strangely created this odd and fuller picture with variations on the theme of childhood and death…The unfortunate act of hitting the child, cast all the past and following experiences in a peculiar light,” he wrote in response.
“Your words reflect the thoughts and conversations we’ve had on the frailty of human life in Senegal… I wonder why does life appear more delicate in Senegal? Must it be that way? Does culture justify it for the best and the worst?”
In my response to him, I wrote that I agreed that life appears particularly delicate here, and that I also agree that there is a cultural element to that. However, I also feel that there are general environmental and socio-economic factors at play and I can’t help but wonder if, in some ways, the feeling of delicacy in life here in Senegal is more rooted in reality than the feelings of stability and security that one might find in the western world. As soon as I returned to the states in 2011 from Senegal, and even more so when I returned to the states from India in 2008, my sense of stability and security at home felt much more rooted in illusion than before. The reality is that life is fragile. Despite any stability we do feel, however far it may be from those who starve, are raped, or murdered day in and day out, it is still connected to the greater suffering in the world and can be taken from us in an instant. I don’t like to be in dangerous situations, but I definitely prefer being in a place where each second is more savored because of the dynamism and even potential danger presented with each day, rather than being in a place where stability and security makes life slip by more quickly without a sense of just how precious it is. Whether life has to be this way or not is an interesting question I can’t answer, but I do respect some of the harsher elements of Senegalese society for making people strong, even if I often can’t understand it (somewhat related: http://www.radiolab.org/story/runners/). Though the feeling of my life being constantly at risk is being to wear on me, maybe the extra boost of adrenaline is actually healthy for me too.
Khadim and I had become particularly bonded before this ride, but the accident has certainly solidified a deeper friendship. I’ve passed by his home several times since; a place that manages to be strikingly tranquil despite being on one of the main roads in Dakar. One afternoon, we shared a cup of whiskey perched on his doorstep, while his little cousins, nieces and nephews played soccer and rode bikes in the yard. Our faces sparkled with the afternoon sun running through the leaves of the coconut trees swaying in a breeze. I think it’s been relieving for us both to be able to share how we’re feeling with just a few words – not having to explain what was experienced.
I have yet to visit Ibrahima Diallo and his family, despite longing to, heeding Khadim’s advice. He was willing to go with me, but hesitant. He said that if we showed up with money, they would take every little bit we had, and if we didn’t, or if we didn’t have enough, he didn’t know how they would react without the communal bonds of wolof and Senegalese society holding them responsible. Khadim paid for the hospital stay and the prescriptions given to the family and I know that alone was a deep strain on him. I feel so cowardly not going, though I know I must follow Khadim’s advice not to go alone. The accident has instilled a new cognizance of the gravity of my own recklessness, eventhough I wasn’t the one driving, and I hope that, if Ibrahima is ever placed in our position, he will do better than we have.
Until next time,