I grew up in a little house with termites in the walls and cracks in the concrete floor. On Saturday mornings, us kids would pile in our parents’ bed and we would all look for pictures in the peeling paint on the ceiling, the way some people do with clouds. As the weeks wore on and more paint chipped, there were always new pictures to find. I thought it was so exciting. It was one of my favorite games to play.
When I was little, “can you tuck me in?” meant I wanted my parents to make sure the mosquito net was pushed under my foam mattress on all sides. But even if mosquitos did manage to sneak their way in, I had gotten pretty good at smushing them against the side of the net where they’d leave little blood smears on the white threads. I saw those smears as proof of my skill and bravery and ability to protect myself.
In the mornings we’d take our malaria medicine and worm medicine along with our gummy vitamins. Back then the malaria pills were so nasty my mom had to crush them up in jam to get us to take them. Even with the nets and the medicine and the little green mosquito-repellent coils burning at night, and even though we sprayed the room beforehand (and sometimes even my skin before bed), I always ended up getting malaria a few times a year.
When I was little, I loved going shopping at the open air market in our little town of Kedougou. Sometimes the vendors would give me little cadeaus like a lollipop or a Zoom juice box. I used to practice my braiding with the hanging scarves at the fabric vendors’ stalls. When we passed the butcher section, I’d have to hold my breath but pretend like I wasn’t. I didn’t want any of the butchers to be offended that I didn’t like the way their wares smelled. Huge pieces of meat dangled from hooks on the ceiling of their booths, dripping blood while flies buzzed around. I always tried to look at the ground and concentrate on not scrunching up my nose while we hurried past.
My mom never had to worry about me getting lost. I was the only little blonde girl in that corner of the country and the market was full of friends. “She went that way,” they would say, “I saw her talking to Khady around the corner.”
When I was little, I thought all the other girls my age in the village were so beautiful. They wore their hair in braids and had colorful beads knotted into the ends. They lined their wrists with bracelets and wore bright wax-print dresses. My hair was too slippery to hold tight braids for very long, but I always wore bracelets and I loved my African dresses. People smiled at the little toubab girl who would greet people in all the local indigenous languages, show off by counting to twenty in Oniyan, and frequently declare that she wanted to live in Kedougou for always and forever.
When I was eight, we moved to the capital city.
When I was sixteen, we moved to America.
When I was eighteen, I went back to visit.
I couldn’t remember all the local greetings. Some people had to remind me of their names. I couldn’t remember how to get to our old house from the open air market and I’d forgotten the name of our neighborhood.
People tell me my accent sounds American now. I guess after three years in the United States, I’m really an American now.
But I still wear the bracelets.
There are three wax-print skirts in my bottom dresser drawer.
There’s a picture on my desk of four year old Hadassah with her white-blonde braids, colorful rubber bands tied on the ends to keep them from slipping out.
And I do remember one song in Oniyan. Sometimes when I catch my mind wandering back to afternoons spent under the shade of mango trees, trying to escape the blazing heat of the April sun, I hum it to myself.
And there is one phrase that has always stayed with me.
Aye kën mbaŋ.
Thank you, Kedougou, for welcoming this little toubab girl with open arms, for teaching me your languages, your practices, your cultures.
I am happy you are part of my story, for always and forever.