Wrapped Under the Mango Tree
By Katie Krueger
(American, age 25)
It was Christmas day when I jumped out of the bush taxi on a sandy
road near the Siné Saloum Delta in Senegal. However, to me that simply
meant another day to let the world greet me as I explored it. When I am
traveling, every day holds so much potential that it has the power to be as
remarkable as Christmas.
I reached the edge of Yayeme, a small Seerer village with about 80
large farming families, and asked two men for directions. They walked me
directly to the campement, where a young man welcomed us in and
introduced himself as Diène N’Dour. His toothy grin lit up his dark face as
he smiled to shake my hand. He invited me to sit in the shade while he
explained that the accommodations were basic. The villagers had no
electricity and hand-pulled all their water from wells so life stayed pretty
simple. I happily accepted and said that I would only be staying one or two
nights because I was headed to the Gambia.
A refreshing bucket shower washed away the fatigue from the
morning’s bus trip and stimulated my appetite so I asked Diène where I
could buy some eggs and bread for dinner. He hesitated thoughtfully before
he answered. “As it is Christmas day and you are so far from you family, I
would like to invite you to eat dinner with my family and spend the holiday
with us,” he said.
I was touched by his offer, but hesitant to intrude on his family’s
celebration. I politely thanked him for the invitation, but told him I did not
want to be a burden. I would happily make myself an omelet and spend the
day writing letters to friends back home.
“Katie,” he pleaded. “Its Christmas! My mother has cooked her best
and would be honored to have you eat with us. Leave the letters until
tomorrow and come make some new friends at my house.” I was flattered
by his insistence, and happily accepted.
When the afternoon heat had passed, we walked to his family’s house.
We arrived at a small, fenced-in plot of land that held three cement huts with
palm leaf roofs, a few mango trees, and an assortment of farm animals.
Under the largest mango tree sat a group of more than ten people, each of
whom smiled warmly and immediately came to shake my hand as Diène
introduced me. Before I had met everyone, his youngest sister brought out a
large bowl of yassa poulet. The family and I sat around the periphery of the
bowl, eating together as a group. When we had each stuffed ourselves to the
limit, we spread out comfortably in the shade and spent the rest of the
afternoon talking in a mixture of French, Wolof, Seerer and English. If my
conversations became muddled because of language barriers, whomever I
was talking to made it a point to slow down and give me the time I needed to
express myself thoroughly.
Around the time the moon rose to salute the setting sun, I thanked
everyone for making me feel at home. Walking back to the campement, I
realized that they had gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable and
as a result I felt like a member of their family. Before going to bed that
night, I thanked Diène profusely for the unforgettable day and for sharing his
wonderful family with me. I said he was lucky to be surrounded by so much
love, and politely asked if everyone we met today shared the three small huts
“Since my father died, it has been my four sisters, one brother, two
uncles, my mother and the goats, pigs and chickens living there,” he
chuckled. “But here in Senegal we do not like to count the people in each
house, because you never know when a visitor might come. Today, for
example, we had one more person than yesterday.” He winked and wished
me a goodnight’s sleep.
After eight months living in Dakar, I will leave Senegal in June
without ever having visited the Gambia. I ended up spending my entire
December vacation in Yayeme, and returned regularly over the next five
months. Diène and I have become good enough friends to discover that we
share a sense of humor, a belief in destiny, and an optimistic curiosity about
the world. Each time I went to Yayeme to visit my friend his family opened
up their lives and welcomed me in. Their limitless teranga (Wolof for
hospitality) allowed me to feel at home and gave me the unique chance to
explore rural Senegalese life from the inside.
Each act of kindness in Yayeme outdid the previous one. People gave
me whatever they could to make me feel welcome. One night, for example,
when I had the opportunity to see a traditional Seerer wrestling match,
Diène’s mother lent me one of her best boubous to wear so that I would be
dressed appropriately. When I returned it to her the next day, she refused,
insisting that I keep it. In addition, I have an ever-growing collection of
bracelets and necklaces that were at one time spontaneous gifts from friends
in Yayeme. The people who did not have much material wealth shared the
most valuable asset of all: their time. Not a day went by in Yayeme without
an invitation from a friend to share a meal, drink tea or simply pay a visit to
say hello. Each day I spent there was long and full, because it was measured
by interactions with people instead of minutes.
The feeling of being part of an extended family followed me out of
Yayeme. When in Dakar, I constantly received phone calls from relatives of
Diène who had never met me but who called to invite me to dinner or simply
to say hello and check in.
Recently, Diène and I were discussing the timeless question facing
most 25-year olds around the world: What will I do with my life? As the
only breadwinner in his house, Diène told me his dream was to find any
work that would pay him enough to build a toilet for his family. He
confided that he was worried his job at the campement was soon coming to
an end. The owner had realized the sad truth that most tourists prefer more
luxurious lodgings and had put the campement up for sale. He feared that
his steady income would soon be replaced by a day-to-day scramble to find
enough money to feed his family. Quietly, he confided that he hoped he was
able to find money for the toilet construction soon, so his aging mother
could spent her last days dignified instead of scurrying to the field behind
their plot each time nature called.
I arrived in Yayeme on Christmas day and Diène gave me a group of
people wrapped in smiles, waiting under a mango tree. When I think of all
that his family has given to me since then, I ache to be able to give them
something back. One thousand dollars would be enough for the N’Dours to
build a toilet for their family and buy seeds to plant full fields, giving them
enough food to eat for the year. After having lived in Dakar for eight
months, I have several trusted friends to ensure safe delivery of the money.
There is no doubt in my mind that any gift that I give Diène’s family would
be shared with all of their friends and neighbors to benefit the entire village.
Like the traveler who fills her days with possibility, the N’Dour family
keeps every day as powerful as Christmas by living in a constant spirit of
KATIE KRUEGER (age 25, American, firstname.lastname@example.org) is
finishing up her year as a Rotary International Academic Scholar in Dakar,
Senegal, where she was officially studying French and Wolof and
unofficially studying the life of the Yayemoise. She will return to her
hometown in Wisconsin where she hopes to make sense of her year abroad
while doing a whole lot of gardening.
DIENE N’DOUR lives near the village of Yayeme, in the Siné Saloum
Delta of Senegal, and would like his mother final years to be dignified.
UPDATE – December, 2004
When I found out that I had won $1,000 for my friends in Senegal, I
decided that I must see the look on Diène’s face when I told him the news.
Only two months after I left Senegal the first time, I returned for a short,
three-week visit. This is my story.
Even before arriving, I was reminded of being back in the friendliness
of Senegal. Standing in the South African Airlines check-in line in New
York, strangers greeted each other, exchanged names and wished each other
a safe journey. Nearly twenty-four hours later, when I arrived I noticed how
the rainy season, which started just after I left Senegal, had transformed
Senegal’s landscape into a green paradise. The route to Yayeme was nearly
unrecognizable; the dusty sand fields that lined it had blossomed into lush
rows of shoulder-high millet stalks.
Everything looked so different that it wasn’t until I saw Diène that I
was sure I was in the right place. He caught me up on two months of news:
most people had spent that time in the fields, working long days planting this
year’s crops. It was also malaria season, and numerous friends were ill.
Those that could afford it, would buy medicine and heal within a week’s
time; others simply prayed and suffered through it.
I was welcomed as warmly as ever. Everyone who I ran into, from
the shopkeeper’s wife to the neighbors’ visiting cousin, remembered my
name. The teranga that is the pride of Senegal was just as strong as ever.
During my first three days in Yayeme, I averaged about 6 meals a day, not
being able to turn down the countless offers to share lunch or dinner with
I was excited to tell Diène about the money, but wanted to wait for a
moment that would allow him to let it all set in. After all, $1,000 was more
than a year’s salary for his family, and I imagined my news would bring a
reaction nothing less extraordinary than the Publisher’s Clearinghouse
Sweepstakes winners we see on television each year.
The day that I chose was ordinary. The morning was already
unbearably hot, and so I spent most of the day sitting under a large mango
tree, reading, writing and talking with the visitors who came to say hello.
When the heat of the afternoon had chased everyone home, Diène and I sat
in the shade as I told him about the contest, the story about his family and
the $1,000 for his family.
For a moment I was not sure if he understood me; not much changed
in him. His top lip started quivering, but that was the only sign of the elation
I knew he must feel. Calmly, he congratulated me for winning and said that
it could only be the beginning of all the great things my writing would bring.
After that, he just sat there smiling. No screaming, no fainting, no theatrics:
only simple words of congratulations and a smile for his friend’s success.
During those moments of silence, I wondered how to get him to reveal
what he was thinking. Before I got the chance, an elderly neighbor passed
outside the campement and shouted over the fence, warning Diène that a
thorny tree was too overgrown and hung too closely to the walkway. He
needed to remove it before a branch fell or hurt someone. Without thought
to anything other than his obligation to the well-being of their small, shared
community, Diène thanked the woman for the news, grabbed his machete,
and went outside to cut down the overgrown branches. Ten minutes after I
shared the news, before he got a chance to let the idea of winning the lottery
make him light-headed and woozy, life had returned to normal and he was
doing his part to make life better for everyone in Yayeme.
During my remaining two weeks in Yayeme, Diène told his
immediate family the news, each of whom celebrated and thanked me for
only a matter of minutes before going back to their daily life. Diène
continued to notice the needs of his friends, and did what he could to help
them out. Now, he surprised children with 100cfa coins instead of 25cfa.
He would buy packs, instead of single cigarettes, to share with friends and
neighbors. One night, he took out a small group of friends and me for some
beers, an event expensive enough that the group assumed I had paid for it.
All night long they mistakenly thanked me for picking up the tab and Diène
never once corrected them, not even slightly interested in the boastful pride
that comes along with being able to take your friends out.
Eventually, I asked him what he imagined he would do with the
money. He said that he would build a toilet for his family. After some cost
calculating, we discovered that there would be enough left over to finish a
half-built well on his family’s property and replace the dingy mattresses his
mother and sisters shared. With careful budgeting, he may also be able to
buy himself a horse and cart, build a veranda on his property, and put away a
small sum in his family’s first ever bank account.
I know that the N’dours will get their first toilet, and I’m fairly certain
they will soon be drinking from their own well and sleeping on new
mattresses. However, I am not so sure about the other things on Diène’s
wish list. It is not shopping sprees or self-indulgent luxuries that I think will
drain their money, but the simple cost of living in a culture where nothing is
more pressing than taking care of the people around you. It was one of my
life’s greatest joys to be able to give $1,000 to the N’dours. However, the
unexpected gift I gave them was the opportunity to feel that same joy, over
and over, as they continue to give to all of Yayeme.
On my trip home, I again found myself in an airport check-in line with
a group of friendly strangers. Most of the Senegalese travelers had huge
suitcases jammed full of gifts, and soon enough, they were all working
together to collectively avoid getting fined for excess baggage. A man with
two large suitcases took the smaller bag of the woman in front of him as a
carry on; a woman with a large purse stuffed in the small gift boxes of her
neighbor. I knew this is exactly the behavior the FAA forbids, what they are
trying to crackdown on when they ask you if you have packed your own
bags and whether or not you have accepted any baggage from strangers. I
smiled to myself in delight, knowing what they FAA does not: among the
Senegalese, there is no such thing as a stranger.