Sunday, January 8, 2012

How Sama gets along

It would be correct to say that Sama Ndiayen, where I live, is an agricultural village. But it’s also a lot more complicated than that. While the average, middle-class American might have a single job with a salary (although these days one might be lucky to have that) the average farmer in Sama Ndiayen probably has several other income sources besides farming. I would hazard to guess that, although most people farm, less than half of the village’s wealth comes from agriculture.

There are a few local businesses in Sama Ndiayen. There’s one shop (run by the only Pulaar in town) where you can buy things like candy, tobacco, powdered milk, or rice. Plus there are at least two families that sell some basics like soap, tea, and sugar out of their homes. There is one family that owns a gas-powered mill, which they fire up in the evenings, and village women go to turn their millet and corn into flour for cous-cous for their families’ dinners. My friend Papa Dia has a mud oven in his backyard and with his son bakes about 200 loaves of bread every day, which he sells in Sama and a couple other villages nearby. One of his customers is a widow (actually she’s remarried but still lives alone) in Sama who sells bean sandwiches and cafe touba out of a tin shack beside the gate to her house. Another widow, named Ata, makes money by cooking lunches and dinners for some guest workers at a nearby cashew project.

There’s also a village women’s group, which nearly all the grown women belong to, which runs a daily vegetable market and a garden. They also have a revolving fund and they own a set of giant pots and pans that they rent out for weddings and baptisms.

There’s Matar Njay, probably the tallest man in the village, who is a photographer. Like most Senegalese photographers, his main gigs are weddings, where he photographs heavily made-up women in immaculate dresses. He can develop your photos at a studio in Kaolack, where it’s possible to make poster-size prints and photoshop your portrait so it looks like you had your wedding in a luxurious hotel suite with a spiral staircase, rather than in your village hut. Matar is proficient with his manual film camera, but he has problems with his digital automatic that he bought recently, and sometimes asks me for help, like when he couldn’t figure out how to get it off the video function.

There is also Tamsir Njay, the village imam who runs a Quranic school for borders and village kids, as well as the government school teachers (all of whom come from outside the village). And there is Ibu Njay, the mason, who can help you build a house, compound wall or a cement douche.

There are also two drivers in Sama Ndiayen who own vehicles that they drive in Kaolack. Abdou Nyan drives his sept-place taxi to Kaolack every morning after first prayer, and takes Sama Ndiayen villagers directly to the city for a small fee. These early-morning rides in Abdou’s car are usually pretty quiet since people are still half-asleep, unless Abdou goes on a rant about the price of gasoline or politics or some such thing. The other driver, Abdoulaye Njay, is a huge man with a very even keel and a penchant for XXL football jerseys. He owns a “mini-car,” a Mercedes bus that holds about 40 people (or maybe 50 if you really cram) that he drives between Kaolack and the Gambian border every day. He seems to be somewhat of a legend among the bus driver network – often people in the garage in Kaolack or Sokone ask me where I live, and when I say Sama Ndiayen they often say, “Abdoulaye Njay’s village! He’s a good guy.” Abdoulaye Njay employs a fare-collector, plus there always seem to be a few young guys in the Kaolack garage who guard his bus when it’s there, fix it up, and take it to the gas station while Abdoulaye takes a rest.

There are also many village men who live outside Sama but send money home. Some are kids, like my cell phone credit dealer in Kaolack, a teenager who returns to Sama only for major holidays like Tabaski. There are also grown men with wives and families in Sama but who work and mostly live in the city, like Aladji Konte, my neighbor who is a security guard at a bank in Kaolack. And Papa’s brother, Omar, who sells baby clothes in Dakar. When my American parents came to visit, I went to visit him where he works in the Medina neighborhood of Dakar. He has one small table covered with baby clothes and toiletries, in a market full of stalls selling similar stuff, in a city with many similar markets. I don’t see how he could manage to make much money doing what he does, but he seems to get by (he also returns to Sama during the rainy season to farm). He seemed to have a lot of friends in the market, whom he introduced me and my parents to, and another man from Sama, Aladji Gaye, was visiting him at the time, so at least he didn’t seem lonely, although he must miss his wife and kids.

There are also villagers who leave the country for work. Just recently Papa’s son Amadou spent three months working at a bakery in the Gambia. People also go farther away for a longer time. One of my neighbor’s sons, Babakar Njay recently returned from a few years in South Africa. He worked in a retail store and learned pretty fluent English. He was roomates with some South Asian Muslims, and he developed a taste for lentils and chutneys. He said he didn’t really like South Africa because it was dangerous, men were willing to kill you over the smallest thing, and the women were mostly prostitutes. It was because they lacked Islam, he said.

Another guy, Samba Gaye, spent a few years in the Bronx. I’m not sure what he did there, but he speaks surprisingly little English. He did master the greetings though, and when he sees me he says: “Babakar! My man! How you feeling? You feel OK?” He’s about 40 years old and lives with his family in a pretty nice house which I presume he built with savings from America.

However, the fanciest house in Sama is owned by Samba Njay, who spent 11 years in Italy. Besides the house, he also has a stylish wardrobe (including a cool feathered hat), a robust horse, a handsome white smile, and one of the most beautiful women in the village as his wife. I don’t think people begrudge him though, because he’s very friendly and helpful. He went to Italy as a teenager and was a street vendor at first. When Bill Clinton visited Italy in the early 90s, he walked right past Samba, who didn’t know who he was until someone explained it was the American president. Later Samba got a job in a metal factory in northern Italy. He showed me some pictures from his time there, and it looked like he had a lot of European friends, including Eastern European friends from the factory. After 11 years in Italy, Samba returned to Senegal and ran a store in Dakar for a while. He once traveled to Dubai to purchase electronics to sell in Dakar. Now that he lives back in Sama, he’s returned to his farming roots and says he never wants to live away from home again.

For the most part people in Sama Ndiayen get by OK. But their lives are totally different from wealthy Senegalese and expats who live in the cities. When I go to parts of Dakar, it’s hard to believe I’m still in the same country as Sama Ndiayen.

The cell phone company Orange recently held a SMS raffle for a luxury SUV and a big house in Almadies, an upscale neighborhood on the Western tip of Dakar (also the Western tip of continental Africa). For most Senegalese people, the raffle will have no significance, except maybe leaving them a few hundred CFA poorer from sending texts to enter (and for some Orange execs, it might leave them that much richer.) But for the one lucky winner, it will mean a whole new way of life. Or will it?

I’ve been trying to imagine what would happen if someone in my village won the raffle. Here’s my prediction of what my host family would do if they won: To begin with, sell the house in Almadies. I can't picture them there. I think they’d miss the village community. Plus, how would they pay for the utilities of such a luxurious living space? It would be hard to find work nearby. With the money from the sale, they’d buy Tabaski rams for everyone in Sama, and send my dad and maybe my brothers on the Hajj to Mecca. What’s left over they might invest in a store in Kaolack, where some family members could live and work but still maintain the home in the village. Or maybe they would use the money on peanut speculating and win even more money (or lose it all).

My brother Xalifa would learn to drive, and become the first luxury-SUV taxi driver in Kaolack. Or maybe they would sell the SUV and buy a mini-car like Abdoulay Njay, and put a really nice job paint job on it, with pictures of all the Tijan marabouts.

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