Have you ever been to Africa? West Africa, in particular? Senegal, in very-particular? Probably not.
I’ve been there four times over 30 years. The first time was for a year in 1974, with my husband and newborn daughter. Next was a six-month stay in 1981, when that daughter was seven and we had to choose between a crowded French-speaking school and a missionary-run English-speaking school which included mandatory instruction in a religion that wasn’t ours. I wasn’t there again until 1998, when my daughter came down from Morocco, where she was living, and we came over from the U.S. We had a great Christmas vacation together. Our most recent visit was in 2003, as the first of our two-month volunteer gigs. By that time, of course, our daughter was grown up and completely launched.
You could say my trips to Senegal are like a timeline for me. Or you could say Senegal and I are old friends. And since I think of the West African setting for DEADLY ADAGIO as being like one of the characters, one that influences the action so that the book couldn’t possibly take place anywhere else, that last characterization feels right. Yes, definitely old friends.
To introduce you to my old friend, Senegal, I’ve posted an excerpt from the book. I’ve been to villages like the one where this scene takes place. The sounds of the kids and chickens, the smell of the wood fires, the image of the hut’s roof have set up permanent residence in my memory, where they were only too ready to be called upon and recorded. But since this excerpt begins on page 82 of the book, I’ve edited it so it makes sense to those who haven’t read pages 1-81, and also in the interests of space.
Emily, the protagonist, is the wife of a Foreign Service Officer.
Walter is the in-country Peace Corps Director.
Nora is a Peace Corps Volunteer running a clinic in a village.
When Emily and Walter got to the village, they went right to the cinderblock clinic. Nora was holding a stethoscope to a woman’s enormous belly with one hand and, with the other, holding up her thumb and index finger. “Nyar,” she said with a grin. Emily knew from the market that nyar meant “two.” The woman was having twins, a harbinger of good luck. Emily remembered what a shock it had been when her doctor told her she was pregnant with twins. Now, of course, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
She shook the pregnant woman’s hand and gave her to understand that she was the mother of twins, too. They smiled energetically enough to make up for the lack of language.
Nora was much older than most volunteers. She embodied a certain solidity, echoed by her short stocky body. Her nose was prominent, her skin wrinkled, and her eyes far enough apart to sometimes give her listeners pause as to exactly where she was looking; but her self-possessed demeanor made no apology for her face, and that, in itself, made her attractive.
She took Emily and Walter to pay a courtesy call on the chief. He was old and withered but with a stature befitting his authority. The scarification on his face – which had undoubtedly been done at his initiation rite, some 50 or 60 or even 70 years ago – was elaborate and, in its own way, beautiful. The colorful embroidered cloths that were casually draped around him were similarly ornate.
Nora’s introduction was mostly in Wolof, with a little French thrown in. Emily only knew a few words in Wolof, but she heard ciif, Wolof for “chief” twice, once in connection with the village chief and once for Walter. There was jere jef, of course, Wolof for “thank you. She wasn’t sure how Nora introduced her, though she thought she picked up the word “ambassade.”
Nobody paid much attention to her, so she let her eyes drift and her mind wander. She hadn’t been to many villages or huts, since her husband’s job mostly dealt with the housing arrangements of the American diplomats.
At first, she was diverted by the chickens and the children in the hut. They wandered from the sleeping quarters – marked by their mosquito nets, thanks to Nora – to the cooking area with its fire pit and oddly shaped cooking implements, to the general open area with the kids and birds chasing each other. She tried to concentrate on what few words she could understand. After a while, like the cooking smoke, her attention drifted upwards.
The roof was built with thin poles like bicycle spokes, but only some of them went all the way to the center, so there was an almost-spokeless area of about one foot in diameter. Then the straw was laid on top of the spokes, all the way to the center, and loosely tied in bunches. The light peeked through the thatch, a bit stronger through the center hole, and so did the breeze, but not the bugs, and the smoke from the cooking fire drifted up and out, leaving only its smell.
Something tugged at her pants. She got down t the tuggers’ level and started to talk to the kids, even though she knew they wouldn’t understand anything other than the universals: eye contact, smile, soft voice.
Nora finished her conversation with the chief. She pulled Emily aside. Gesturing toward Walter and the chief, she said, “These two are going to be going at it for a while. Chief-talk, I guess. Want to come to my hut for a glass of iced tea?”
Emily hesitated for a split-second. “I wonder if….”
“If you’re worried about the water, dear, yes, I boiled it for 20 minutes. I’m the nurse here, you know. I’m careful and, besides, I’m not one of those kids who think they can do anything because they’re immortal. I am definitely mortal.”
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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Press. Senegal is one of the 12+ countries in Africa she’s been lucky enough to visit; maybe she’ll introduce another friend in another post.