Tuesday, May 3. We sit in a dark classroom of the CAEC in Dakar and listen to a lecture about the geopolitical history of Senegal. The chairs are uncomfortable and there are no desks. I can’t touch the floor when I sit in the chair, and my notebook slants away from me when it’s on my lap. I cross my left leg over the right and take notes until one of my legs goes numb. Then I try sitting cross-legged to stretch, then that also becomes uncomfortable, and I’m trying to focus but I’m only catching every other word yet I’m grateful Madame is writing notes on the board that everyone can follow. Senegal has a strategic location; they are known for their Teranga, or hospitality. The main rivers are the Senegal, Sine and Saloum; the mouth of the Senegal joins with the Atlantic Ocean.
I try to pretend that I’m floating.
Maybe the lecture goes on for another hour; maybe days. I prop my feet up on the back edge of the seat in front me, careful not to touch its occupant’s rear end. Using this slant, I can take notes more easily.
Sometimes the French sounds like noise, but I learn that other languages in Senegal are Arabic, Peule, Wolof, Serer, Madinka, and Soninke. The Isle of Gorée was a center of slave trade. I wonder if the rest of the trip is going to be like this. Will we have classes every day, will it always be this dark and hard to understand. Silly symbolisms bounce around in my brain.
After a couple of hours or a thousand, the lecture wraps up. I notice that Madame Aminata Sow Fall has entered the classroom, and an assistant starts to bring in stacks of her novels for sale. She writes about the rights of women and the potential of African countries to become self-sustaining. She moves forward in a country that halfheartedly attempts to unmire itself from certain traditions. She is highly esteemed and well-respected in the francophone world. An idea strikes me.
The lecture is over and the students begin leaving the classroom to stand in the sun. I reach into my backpack and pull out a copy of Douceurs du bercail and then a black Sharpie marker. I rehearsed the French in my brain while waiting for a free moment with Madame Sow.
In Senegal, the married name immediately follows the given name, and the maiden name moves to the end.
She walks toward the back of the classroom. With a book in one hand and a marker in the other, I stand up and approach her.
Excusez-moi de vous deranger …
It’s no trouble at all she says, all Frenchlike.
Est-ce je peux avoir votre autographe?
It would be my pleasure.
I hand her the book and the marker, because I thought she would write on the inside cover, but instead she asks for a pen and tells me the marker would bleed through the page.
She asks my name, and I tell her. She inscribes, “To May, With all my affection.” Then she signs and dates it.
I thank her, and I walk out of the classroom. My feet still don’t touch the ground, but I love this sensation.
For the next two weeks (but really four), I say nothing in class. I’m shy and self-conscious, I listen and the African-effected French becomes a little easier to understand. The role of women in modern society. Polygamy and the role of family. The education system. The future of Senegal.
At the CIRLAC in Saint-Louis, Madame gathers us to take yet another photo de famille. Madame Fall passes by me, she mispronounces my name (like “my”), but I give her the benefit of the doubt because I have been silent and avoiding attention, plus she meets and knows so many people. I smile and say bonjour, and she continues to walk and shake other students’ hands. Then she returns to me and pronounces my name correctly and tells me that one of her granddaughters has a name of the former pronunciation. At this point my brain freezes the way it does when intimidating people talk to me, but I’m also absolutely elated, so I manage to squeak out something like “that’s very interesting” or “how cute” but all I really remember is that she remembered my name.
And that she might have my Sharpie.