09 Wednesdays 2013. Dakar, Senegal. What to write after ten or more days in a country that has occupied my mind for the last two years solidly. Dakar Senegal. What is it about this place that has so ensnared my mind? That has made everything seem a little mundane if it had no link to Senegal . A Year ago in December of 2011, I packed my bags for a month-long holiday at an invitation from a friend. I was more than lethargic when I arrived. As the taxi drove through the main highway from the Airport to the city, I watched the horizon, nothing was visible , dust-covered evening. It was a thick brown fog that was like a concrete wall hiding the outline of the city. I wondered why it was so important for me to be there. I was on holiday, and the reason I was on holiday in Senegal was in the taxi with me. In the days that followed my host asked me what I thought of Dakar. At that point I honestly didn’t know how to answer that question. I even wondered if I had an answer to begin with. I had not seen the city for one, having spent most of my time sleeping in bed or online searching for things “Dakar” to do. When I was not sleeping in the first few days of my arrival; I took walks around the neighborhood to acclimatize myself to the newness and foreignness of the place. But as I walked I found little pieces of Barcelona, I found pieces of New York, pieces of Kenya, Uganda, some pieces I imagine to be decidedly French, even though I have never been to France. I found to my amazement that the city had representations of almost every major city in the world that I have had the opportunity to visit and yet it was still nothing like any of them. So after a long pause recalling the images from my morning and afternoon walks I answered: “It’s like every city I’ve been to and none that I have been to at the same time” She nodded as if in agreement. After the first five days of sleep-walking and through some connections I made through friends I decided despite my inner protestations to be on holiday on not on sleep-holiday was during the day as if I slept. Sleep oh. For the past 6 years I have had a sleeping disorder I didn’t know about which required me to drink enough alcohol to knock me out sleeping pills had become a no-go zone since I once tried to commit suicide by drinking pills after my grandmother who raised me died, in 2006. otherwise I just could not sleep. I had to be lulled to sleep, radio television, music book, anything…the opposite of that was sleeping during the day when sleep comes, even that was sometimes hard to achieve, the TV had to be on, a radio something, I could read till midday, not that I slept of much, the only time I could sleep really was during the day, with said TV/radio/music on… often I would just sit in bed not wanting to do or go or see anyone or anything – I just wanted to be left alone sometimes. I had to wake up and face this country I had chosen as my ideal destination for a holiday. One forgets – at least I did, now less so – that Senegal is mostly desert land, full of sand and dust everywhere. I was reminded this morning while cleaning the new space I have just moved into. Keeping yourself and your household dust free in a place where water is a very precious commodity can be a never-ending full-time job. So in the month of December 2012 I woke up from my sleep-walking to go to St-Louis, an old French-Colonial-Slave town five hours north of Senegal’s capital city Dakar. I booked into a B&B and caught a set-place (seven seater) Peugeot Station Wagon to one of Senegal’s most famous tourist attraction. I felt completely and utterly nostalgic about the drive down to Senegal; again, it reminded me – hauntingly – of another time and place I once lived in but just couldn’t put my finger on it. Could I have traveled this road once before? Could I have been to Senegal before and not even known about it myself? Why was my core, my heart nudging me about this foreign place that was once so familiar and strangely new at the same time? The drive down was peaceful as if I was in a time capsule, or on an airplane where worrying about anything is futile, in transit as it were or better still – No where. My feelings and emotions were amplified my emotions (feelings) were amplified, the nostalgia was enough to make me want to cry, but I gratefully fell into a lulling sleep instead. In St-Louis the air was decidedly different. The town itself felt abandoned – a ghost town – in December. People moved languidly and slowly under the scorching heat. The sandy streets made walking seem like a marathon challenge. Others sat in the dark shops from where they sold touristy things to the few tourists that were shuffled around in horse driven carts. I tried to imagine what St-Louis must have looked like back in the 1800’s under French occupation. A place inhabited by french explorers who made their money selling people and other commodities to countries across the Atlantic. I kept looking for those quint and picturesque images that so beautifully describe my holiday destination. I re-read descriptions of the wonderful St-Louis, and immediately wished people could write their feelings. It is a beautiful place – but I felt lost. For me St-Louis, like Goree Island in Dakar had not changed much…. well they had changed considerably but the founding principles of the place, the country and continent had still not changed. There are no obvious chains on anyone walking around in St-Louis. Slavery has long been abolished as we all well know. Indeed there are no similarities. However the principle of people as commodities enslaved by the insatiable quest for power and money by those in power have not. I returned from St-Louis refreshed despite my initial misgivings about the place. On Christmas day I had the opportunity or pleasure of swimming at a place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the River Senegal (Oceane et Savanne). My host and I were the only brown people in the entire holiday strip, except for those who were serving the guests. I let my mind forget about the “glaring inequities” of it all for a while, and chose to enjoy the beauty of nature and land which was given to us all humans and animals to enjoy equally though not every one is in agreement about that.
Back in Dakar, I walked into Riots, protests and daily demonstrations which made the otherwise quiet and peaceful country Headline news on all major international news channels. I had not come prepared to work, in fact though I made mention of it in passing conversations, it was not the one thing that was upper most on my mind. What I had in mind was a chill session of heart, mind, body and soul, full of dancing and making love in the simplest ways, meeting new people, discovering new things – as one does when on holiday. But the journalist in me could not watch a story happen right in front of my door step, literally and not write about it. So I started to report on the pre-election violence/demonstrations in the country and soon after the elections went ahead peacefully and a new leader was elected by popular demand, I found work at a regional radio station based in Dakar, where I spent the rest of my time working 18 hour days with barely enough room to eat, sleep and wake up again for the next round. Though the work was fulfilling it had become like a heavy chain around my ankles, I’m sure not so different from those worn by the slaves of yesterday. I worked seven days a week, I had no time to spend the little money I earned, which was also just fine with me since it was enough for room and board. I finally decided to return home in May, to put things into perspective – who goes on holiday for a month and ends up coming home six months later? So many have, and I needed to be sure.
The first six months in Senegal now in retrospect was a haze of dust, smoke and tear gas. My tears which came often (every two days or so) were a useful tonic. In the last six month back home I spent a large amount of time trying to find work so that I could return again to Senegal, what for this time? ‘My internal questions were echoed in the faces of my friends and family. As if to say okay baby, you have had your adventures, you’re not growing any younger and to top it all off, you have been living from suitcase for a whole year – imagine 365- days without unpacking a single thing! I still did not have an answer for this question. Until today.
On my walk from my new place to the a local shop to go on the net. It dawned on me. As clear as day – what Senegal reminded me of. What this place was about, is about perhaps.I started to ask myself this question more seriously this time when after three days in the city I found myself again without access to money, through no real fault of my own. The back and forth from bank to bank between Johannesburg and Dakar, and my inability to anything at all this time round, nothing made me ask what was this big pull to move to be here. I began again to ask my self the question why am I here? Change at anytime or place is never easy, to decide to live in a place whose national and official language you don’t understand, whose customs and way of life are on polar opposites to your own, where so much is forbidden, where so much is mis-understood by you, to come to this place – again – Is one of the most challenging decisions I have ever had to make in my life. I weighed them up, the pros and cons of staying. The pros and cons of leaving. And I decided on Senegal.
I met an artisan in St-Louis who asked me why I was in Senegal or St-Louis. I said for a vacation. He asked me what was I looking for? Hoping to find in Senegal. I said love. Then he made me a heart-shaped necklace I have never worn with the words Senegal St-Louis on it. I have been asked this question many times back home and here. I have asked myself this question openly and in private, in my prayers and in my laughter… what is it about this place? So….
There’s one other place I failed to recognize in Senegal in my many walks. And for the life of me this place is everywhere here…. in the language, french and Wolof, in the religion and culture…and in the sights and smells. I was in this place during a time of war back in 2006 and I never expected to find, Beirut, Lebanon in Dakar, Senegal!
It’s the coffee sold in small tiny cups at street corners, it’s the people who continue to live and move on as if there are no rockets flying down causing ripples through the dark roasted liquid. It’s the passionate way the people speak. It’s the way in which Islam the national religion – finds its way seamlessly through french culture mixed with a decidedly cosmopolitan circular life where people from all corners of the world meet, engage and love each other. It’s in the taxis,the cabs, yellow and black, in the images of Sheick Amadou Bambar in Senegal and Hassan Nasrallah in Lebonon. It’ in the calls to prayer throughout the day, it’s in the convictions of the people of what is right and what is wrong. Love in a time of war is something else. Life in a time of war makes one grateful for every little thing, even the most basic things one feels grateful just be able to do them. Struggling to find oil, water etc, does not seem much like a struggle when you could die at any second or moment through no provocation of your own. Every conceivable human emotion reactions is heightened – in the face of imminent death, living from a suitcase feels like duplex luxury hotel in one of the richest capitals of the world,you choose.
The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollh War – changed my life. I just didn’t know how much. As if I was literally courting trouble; the dust had just settled in Senegal when I arrived in South Africa to a massacre so brutal I was sure I landed in 1976 Apartheid South Africa. More than 34 striking mine workers were killed openly for the entire world to see. Images of that massacre are still being screened here in Senegal. I didn’t go to the scene of the incident this time, even though the journalist in me so wanted to go there and report on the aftermath. In response to the Marikana Massacre, I did a series of interviews with conflict journalists/reporters, asking them to share how stories of conflict/war/violence reporting has changed their lives or affected them. I had been with one of them on assignment to Lebanon. I asked him to share a memory or a story, an incident that changed his worldview. He described the most vivid claustrophobic scene I have ever heard in my life. He described a burial scene, at a Palestinian refugee camp, at a spot which had been hit by Israeli rockets, just a few hours ago, for the second time. You could hear the drones circling the skies like vultures searching for a target – and you were it. He told me he felt like he was trapped, and would be buried along with the rest of deceased, because we were literally the living dead. He told me that when he got to his hotel room he noticed he had aged considerably just from that one day out of a whole 34 days that we had been reporting on what is was known in Lebanon as the July War – Lebanons’ Hottest summer. But what surprised me more than anything was not the scene he described or his real-time aging process there-after, but that simply I had been there with him, standing at that exact same spot. I had been there at that exact same spot and I didn’t even remember it. I was not drunk or high – my brain just couldn’t deal with the reallness of my mortality. The drive to St-Louiss was the drive to Lebanon from Jordan via Syria. It was nostalgic because it was a dangerous thing to do at the time. Israeli rockets has not left the Syria-Lebanon border untouched. Our taxi driver was playing Julio Iglesias, my parents and our favourite singer… I called my father on the spot, to say I was on my way to Lebanon, driving past the Syria – our taxi driver was playing Julio Iglesias, I loved him. The second time I called my father was when I had been standing outside the balcony of a room my fixer had organized for me to stay. I had been watching the view from the city, when a rocket went down shaking the very foundations of the building and balcony. I don’t know why war still seems so glamorous. I can’t even remember how I managed to sleep that night.
So in an utterly strange way, Senegal now makes complete sense to me. Perhaps its my minds’ way of trying to re-write that story – change the past. I don’t want to be a martyr to this or any other war, worst of all I don’t want to be a martyr in my own life in whatever small ways. Oh now I remember… I came to Senegal because I wanted to write about country, its people its history, culture etc. But after the dust has settled in Senegal, life has gone back to a normalcy I have never quite experienced before – my foreignness is more pronounce, my decision to return even more daunting . After the dust has settled and after a year of living my life out of a suit-case going from couch to couch, place to place, living on rough side of life does not make sense. I want my life before Lebanon back, the familiar comfort of home surrounded by my books, freshly cut flowers, coffee… friends and family. It’s as if after all this time , five years precisely since I was in Lebanon, someone forgot to tell me that: – ” Honey the war is over, you don’t have to live out of a suitcase, or run for your life, be poor or be ill not every thing is an emergency, not everyone you love is going die right this minute or the second you don’t see them, YES YOU ARE ALIVE, and you deserve to live just like everyone else including those who have died. It’s okay, It’s not you’re fault. The war is over, live life make it all count now by living your BEST LIFE NOW.”
I am crying now, and Its A-OKAY with me, Because yet again I forgot to mention the one other important reason that led me to Beirut, Lebanon and Dakar, Senegal. LOVE. Love for my work and a love for another human being.
And it is here in Dakar Senegal, that I learned how to walk again, sleep again, eat again, laugh, cry, trust, believe again, hope again, love again.
I have been scared to say I’m in love in case it does not work out… I’ve been scared to admit that I Jedi Ramalapa am a LOVABLE person, I forgot in all those years (6 years), that My mother loves me, My father loves me, Oh my sisters and brothers love me, I have friends near and far who love me. I am loved. Forgot what love feels like. everything, my humanity, their humanity and I am sorry.
There’s one other person… I love who I know loves me more than I can ever imagine….
All I can say I am sorry it’s taken me so long to get here, I love you and I know that you love me too. You are the only One I want!
I love you baby.