Ndànk-ndànk, mooy jàpp golo ci ñaay

Third Prize in the 2019–20 Writing Contest

An Trinh, ’22, writes, “For a long weekend, two of my closest friends and I went to Kédougou, a little town on the other side of Senegal from Dakar. This is a story about us. And this is also a story about more than just us.”

Vietnam. 040920.

In our opening lesson about Senegal, the first word we learned in Wolof was muñ - patience. Time is just a concept that one can stretch and shrink.

The fruits fell not because one shook the trees, but because they were ripe.

Good things come to the ones who wait.

Ndànk-ndànk, mooy jàpp golo ci ñaay.

Little by little, one catches the monkey in the forest.

The sept-places.

The flies were humming above our heads, and every now and then, the air of noon became so quiet and stuffed that we could hear their wings flap and freeze in the heat. The chickens ran around frantically whenever a car drove through and turned the station into a sandstorm; normally, I would cluck and try to calm them down, but my exhaustion swallowed my ability to talk to animals. During the four hours we were stranded on that bench, three cows passed by, looked at us lackadaisically, and wagged their tails in triumph: their freedom of movement was what we were desperately yearning for.

At that time, we had already left Dakar and travelled for twenty hours, all the way from the westernmost point of mainland Africa towards the very southeast of Senegal. We were sitting under the only shack that operated sept-places from Kédougou to Dindefelo, in a typical station with a dozen kinds of old buses and broken vans going to various regions of the country, vendors selling packs of water and fruits, and taxi drivers yelling aggressively at each other and at the confused passengers. Dust covered our faces, soda filled our stomachs, and we longed for entering a toilet and not feeling like our noses had fallen to a cowpat.

By then, we were already given some new identities for ourselves. Peter’s new name was something that sounded like che-muh-ko, which is a word originated from the story of the greatest king of the Fular people, meaning son of the heat - quite ironic because Peter’s skin would either peel off or freckle immediately after getting touched by the softest sunlight. Ashley then became Fatou, the name of at least a fifth of all Senegalese - I personally know at least ten people with that name in our program’s host families alone, and if you were to go on a street and yell it out, be ready for the intense annoyed glares from a hundred beautifully dressed women. And I was Rama, the name derived from Ramadan - the most sacred month of the year according to Islamic culture, which is also the name of one of the most worshipped deities in Hindu religion. Growing up as atheist in a Protestant household within a country where people mainly practice Buddhism and go to temples, I was very pleased with this divine intersection.

But the excitement from our new names could not last us very long.

- Just wait, I have to eat lunch first. - The driver told us when we disrupted their impassioned conversation after long hours of Friday praying. - Next time, ask your parents to come with you three.

We looked at each other, not sure what we should feel - angry because we had to keep waiting after four hours, or confused because they thought that two black-hair, darker-skin Asian girls and a tall pale blond Irish boy were siblings (which I actually preferred more than being misunderstood as husband and his two wives).

And eventually, we decided to buy two more bottles of cold water - people could’ve cooked eggs in the sandwich stand behind me solely from this midday heat. Peter only brought two books with him, so my only choice to kill the time was reading a chapter of Fanon’s analysis on how colonized black women often fantasized white men due to their perceived “superior” skin color. His flow of arguments sounded like free-versed poetry and could have easily put me to sleep, yet my inner frustration kept me awake.

- Listen, when the sun hits the top of that tree, we are getting a scooter. I should be able to carry us three on those dirt roads for at least two hours to Dindefelo.

(Yes, despite my petiteness, I am very confident in my scooter-driving skill. No, don’t worry, we didn’t actually do it. And yes, there were only three of us - Ashley, Peter, and I - which we constantly thanked Allah, Jesus Christ, and Buddha for throughout that weekend: this trip would be torturous going with someone who was less of a ‘go with the flow’ traveler than us.)

We saw the hours float by, waiting for any movement indicating progress from the sept-places - we were thrilled when people started putting luggage in the trunk, when the driver checked the engine, and even when they asked us to pay for our backpacks to be stored. I was never that easy to please.

As its French name suggests, a sept-places normally holds seven passengers, yet we were so wrong thinking there would be only seven on this particular one. There were five women, four kids, and at least ten men in and out of the shack we were sitting in at some point, and eight of them ended up with us on the sept-places. Then as we were, finally, slowly moving towards the main road, four young boys hopped on top and another one hung himself onto its back, make the number sixteen. And this tiny, ancient, and rusty van which was over-doubling its capacity hit the bumpy dirt road, on which the driver had to bribe the traffic polices five times, fix the car engine twice, and take at least three thousand sudden turns to avoid huge potholes, medium trees, and tiny goats.

And then we arrived. Dindefelo. An hour before sunset.

As we lifted our heads, we eventually processed the fact that we were at the foot of some magnificent mountains and surrounded by lush trees, and we realized how much we missed the color green and a substantial change in altitude. The rest of Senegal, especially Dakar, had always been so flat and sandy, and plants were often covered in layers of taupe dust.

We remembered why we wanted to travel this far: to see another part of Senegal and another way of living, to slowly open our hearts and widen our eyes, and to get away from our busy selves a tiny bit.

Our foot.

We went to bed early the night before after walking around the village, eating dinner, trying to get water to shower from a well, and listening to Tikki Tikki Tembo - the racist sad-ending children story, this particular version provided by Peter’s grandmother. The guide from our campement said that he would see us at six to hike up the mountain and catch the sunrise. Knowing Senegalese time too well by now, we didn’t take it very seriously.

The hike started at half-past seven. My lack of exercise crushed my lungs and almost knocked down my legs.

- Be careful, there is nothing to rush for. - Our guide told us as I started to hold the stiff rocks by hands to move up.

- Ndànk-ndànk.

We replied to him, then giggled at each other after bewildering him with our Wolof skill. This saying was first presented to us three weeks ago by our Toubacouta guide while climbing on the mangrove roots over the seven-foot deep mud in the forest along Saloum Delta, and it had become our favorite ever since. It literally means little little, but figuratively means slowly.

We headed towards Dindefelo waterfall, which is the only waterfall in Senegal and the initial reason for this exhausting trip to happen, and we noticed many women washing clothes by the stream bank. Their laughter caught us from far away. Then the forest opened up to show us the waves of colorful hanging fabric dancing in the scattered turquoise sunlight which penetrated layers and layers of canopy. The women always spend their Saturdays around this area, chatting while rubbing the clothes on those rugged rocks, showing off their best tie-dye techniques on cotton fabric, and whispering the town gossips to the mountains. They sang through every passing moment and every fluttering piece of cloth.

Time was shrinking. Time was stretching.

The air froze. The air sweated. The air also lost us for a new concept of time.

I remembered waking up trembling at five that day - I opened our little hut’s door, got hit by the morning dew and the dawn chills, and had to wear a jacket. The unbearable heat of hundred-and-eight degrees just thirteen hours ago seemed like such an alien concept. The temperature rose again as our hike started, then dropped quickly when we got close to the fall.

The sun was as blue as the waterfall. The stream looked like it had fallen far up the sky: tiny squirts, powerful and magnificent, created a little pond that went over my head and was colder than Lake Michigan in early winter.

We went along the border rocks, as I did not dare to swim, and held each other’s hands to counter the slippery green moss. Then we got flushed by the water and felt like kids playing in the rain. My many childhood memories flashed back - I suddenly forgot the twenty-one-year-old me barely making it through classes, fighting for jobs, struggling to socialize and integrate into college life, crying in the middle of many nights, feeling incredibly lonely and desolate.

I looked at my friends.

- An, don’t go too fast. Take our hand.

We were there together.


And finally, there was the glamorous sun again on top of the mountain, passing the silky yellow hay field. The air there was so fresh, and the scenery was astonishing. We marveled at vertical giant cliffs and the minute village of Dindefelo from above. Our guide showed us which roofs were our campement, as well as where the school and soccer field were located. As we were getting some rest near the top of this mountain, our eyes caught and followed the swift steps of some little schoolboys who shared our route. In total admiration, we saw them skipping into the reed field, their bouncing backpacks and tiny bodies all covered by the yellow grass.

- Did you notice the village that got burned down last year on the way coming here? Many of the kids from there went to the school down there, in Dindefelo. They come in the morning, then walk back at noon for lunch.

We indeed remembered. That village was many hills, sand dunes, and mountains away, and it probably took at least two hours to walk.

During our first several days in Senegal, we all soon realized how normal it was to eat late lunch and dinner. Lunch sometimes starts at four, dinner rarely finishes before ten, and this pattern is surprisingly consistent throughout all the parts of Senegal that we had visited. Our host families usually waited for everyone to come back home from work and eat together around a big plate. Our stomachs and diets gradually adjusted to this particular eating schedule, and we learned plenty of tricks to avoid hunger, including frequently visiting the fruit stand or the Nescáfe cart during breaks to buy snacks and bananas.

Yet at that moment, I realized that many children were not that fortunate - they walked under the flamboyant sun and the pouring rain, through grassland and desert, over rock and sand, with dirty hands and empty stomachs, in order to get home. And by waiting for the hundreds of thousands of children to come home and the millions of parents to return from work, eating late meals became a custom in this whole nation.

The mountain bikes.

Kédougou is a small town. There is only one wet market, one church, and one bar which serves soft drinks and lets us sit on their couches during the day. All the important spots set along the only two paved roads of the whole town. The town is by the Gambia River, which was partially barren then due to the dry season. The majority of locals here do not speak Wolof.

My language skills are completely useless in Senegal, yet I never have to worry as Peter and Ashley can always miraculously save the day as communication geniuses. After some hours of waiting and many unanswered phone calls, our Airbnb host finally responded. He laughed when we said we could walk to the place, then directed us to take a taxi outside and let him talk to the driver. We got in, having absolutely no idea where the taxi was going. At some point in the middle of the road, the taxi stopped, and a random kid who looked about fifteen years-old hopped in.

That kid was our little tour guide. He led our taxi home.

And soon enough, we understood why our host was so certain that we could never find the address on our own: the Airbnb, which was an earth-house built by some German researchers and now mainly served American Peace Corps volunteers, was located on the verge of a hillside, deep inside a neighborhood without any formal roads - the paths there were merely the space between houses and the traces of goats’ footprints. Right in front of our house, there was a huge tree with fruits that looked like mango and excited me for a ridiculously long time, until Peter helped me shoot one down and, after cracking it open, I realized that it was the fruit of a fuma - a type of African silk cotton tree, it absolutely did not exist to be eaten.

There was not much furniture in the house. Besides two beds with pillows on them and a dozen prayer mats, there were some cupboards that were stacked with biology books, broken flashlights, outdated bean cans, assorted clothes and rocks. But leaning on the wall was something that caught our eyes after the door first opened: two mountain bikes. We knew that we must somehow make use of them.

If you ever meet me in real-life, you might notice that I am pretty small, small enough that I can never ride American-sized and, apparently, African-sized bikes. Furthermore, we were three humans and there were only two bikes, thus it only made sense that I climbed on the back of Peter’s bike, placed my hands on his shoulders, settled my foot on the chain guard, and hoped for the best.

The first downhill run was rough.

In order to avoid the gazillions of rat holes, chicken holes, and pig holes on that narrow path, Peter kept changing the direction of the bike and ended up hitting more giant thatching grass than actual empty space. His right hand had been cut the day before, and the wound was embittered by the sweat cooked under sunlight and the friction itched from the handlebar. I had to keep balance while standing through all the turns and bounces, yet my legs constantly banged into the running back wheel - there are still bruises four inches above my two ankles like purple medals that never fade.

While Peter was running back home to cut his bath towel for a piece of cloth to wrap his damaged hand, Ashley and I wandered around and stumbled across another gigantic baobab tree. The baobab was blackened and hollowed through the middle, as if it had been hit straight by some lightning. As I slipped inside the gap, I told Ashley that baobab trees were used as the grounds of sacrifice where wizards burnt sheep and humans alive to wish for a year of abundant harvest. Her skin turned pale. And it was funny that after knowing me for so long, she still fell for every single one of my completely fictitious stories.

Then, I realized that we could still find something new and unexpected about the people dear to us, always, no matter how long or how well we thought that we knew each other. We found it in the way that Peter still surprised us every time with his ability to talk to everyone everywhere: the moment we reached the shore of the Gambia River, he started to yell a conversation to a fisherman on the other side and very quickly knew his whole family. We found it in the way Ashley constantly demonstrated new talents, such as her passion for photography, for frisbee, or apparently for skipping stones (a record of thirteen times). All of this, new and unknown, despite being housemates with her for over a year and staying right across the hall from her.

And as we happened to walk into each other’s hearts, know their most random secrets, and let them forever sprout in our mind, we found it in the way we let the maroon soil decide where our bikes would go.

Once. Twice. Many, many times. Gradually. Suddenly.

As I stood on the rocks, caught water as it crashed on my sunburnt slipper, and looked into my reflection over the Gambia River, I remembered the previous night here in Kédougou, when the three of us had lain down on the rooftop, gazing into the changing sky. There was no electricity in our place, except the notebook-size single pane solar panel laid on the rooftop. The stretch of space within our eyesight was utterly empty - all the houses were either one floor of bricks or just metal panes; the main street was so far away so that the view of modern development was as distant as a midday dream.

We laid through the afternoon praying Muslim song that was chanted from afar and listened to the most sacred hopes of humanity murmuring into the intersection between earth and divine. We laid through the sunset across the typical African scenery in American movies of vast savannah - flock of blue birds flying across and billowing smoke behind motorcycles. We laid until the dark night fell onto our discrete childhood stories over fig-flavored chocolate and opened in front of us the whole galaxy that never shone on a smoky Chicago sky.

Nothing blocked our eyes. Nothing separated us and ourselves. Nothing told us that our strange souls did not belong to this African land.

And I remembered the sept-places back from Dindefelo to Kédougou, during which Ashley and I - the only two girls in this crammed vehicle - squeezed ourselves into the passenger seat up front, leaving Peter in the backseat with the bombardment of a million questions from our fellow passengers, who were volunteers from an educational organization in Dakar. They thought we were completely crazy for going all the way here, and many questions were in this spirit: “But why though? Why here?

Some hours before that, at lunch in our campement, we met Terry, the Australian seventy-year-old recruiting manager in a gold-digging business, who has been traveling throughout West Africa for the past eight years yet still could not speak any French, and who had stopped at Dindefelo for several days to have his documents cleared for entering Mali. He had been traveling since the age of sixteen, came to many places, moved here, landed there, yet seemed to belong to nowhere.

That, I hope, is never a reason for me to come to any place - to dig its soil and leave without noticing what lives on the ground. I want to learn from it, befriend it, make it my home. I want to feel its hottest days and darkest nights, to hear the Northern voices and the Southern songs, to smell the desert sand and the ocean waves.

It will take time. But so as everything great.

The plane.

I am finishing this story of us - the three Dindefelo idiots - after the flight from Ho Chi Minh city to Hanoi, Vietnam in early April. Now I have to wait for another two hours for either an army truck or an ambulance to escort me home because my city has gone under lockdown for the past ten days, and all travels are currently facilitated by Department of Health and Military. The airport is eerily empty; minimal light is turned on just enough to illuminate the lonely crowd of people spreading out, somewhat closer to their destination now. This is the busiest airport in Vietnam - a country with ninety-five million people, and today, there were twelve flights landed (only three with passengers in them), according to the information board in front of me.

We left Dakar exactly a month ago, and March has felt like an eternity. Then, I could never imagine this happening. Spring is coming to Chicago, my favorite gigantic magnolia tree in front of Haskell Hall blooming, and me waiting for the moment to pick its fallen flowers on the ground. The COVID-19 crisis disturbed the lives of many people in the most unexpected and dreary ways. It made me unable to stay in the United States, forced me to leave Chicago and many plans that Ashley, Peter and I planned together - that we are going to Argyle to eat Vietnamese food and sing karaoke in Chinatown, that we have to finish the movies we haven’t watched and play some other Jackbox games we haven’t tried. Thinking about them quickly saddens my heart, as if it is made by cotton candies then soaked in morning dew.

But if I have to pick one thing Senegal taught me and carved into my heart, that would be muñ: be patient, and act on things as they arrive. We are all in this world of many unforeseeable circumstances, like questionable archaic sept-places, thus keep our feet firm on the ground like a baobab, run on a mountain bike as the fair wind comes, and then we will fly, our wings will reach all the unknown miracles and our mind will be filled with delightful wonders - about ourselves, about others, about the world that holds us all.

Ndànk-ndànk, mooy jàpp golo ci ñaay.