by Kendra Stapleton
The first time I met M. Mamadu Bah, I immediately forgot his name, but that’s not to say he didn’t make an impression on me. Jessica Steele and I were introduced to him, and the 12 other members of the organic agriculture group Oasis Grow Biointensive, at their composting demonstration site in Dakar. While his name got lost amongst all those that we heard that Saturday morning, his personality definitely did not.
Riding back home after the demonstration, we talked about what we had seen and who we had met, including the effervescent M. Bah, who we referred to as ‘that guy that literally didn’t stop smiling all day.’ While this may not be the catchiest nickname ever earned, I hope it sets the tone for everything that follows.
And so, when I joined OGB for a second weekend workshop (to see first hand how the composting magic happens) I was very glad to find M. Bah in attendance. As it came time to walk from our meeting spot to a fellow OGB member’s house for lunch, well, it was no coincidence that my footsteps fell in time with his.
Now, one thing I would like to note about Senegal is that has a very well-defined tradition of exchanging pleasantries. By this I mean that small talk can go on forever. There are at least five variations in Wolof on the question of ‘How are you doing’ that are used to begin any conversation, be it with your friend, taxi driver, family, hair dresser, fruit vendor, guards, or someone you just met, and those are just the five that I know. It’s impossible to ever walk by someone you (even vaguely) know, without an exchange that goes a little something like this:
Salaam maaleekum! Maaleekum salaam! (Peace be upon you! And also with you!)
Nanga def/noo def? Magni fi! (How are you? I am fine!)
Jaam nga am? Jaam rek! (Are you at peace? I have peace now)
Ana waa keur gi? Nunga fa! (How/where is your family? They are fine!)
Naka ligéey bi? Maangi ci kowam, ndanka. (How is your work? I am working on it, calmly.)
Naka subba si? Subba sangi fi rek! (How is the morning? The morning is fine.)
Not only is this traditional, it’s just downright polite. But when I first got here, coming from a country where people can seem at times chronically adverse to small talk, it was an adjustment. Since most Senegalese tend to closely follow social traditions, it took me a bit by surprise when M. Bah, instead of asking me one of the aforementioned questions, opted instead to start a conversation about languages.
Being raised in London, Ontario, an entirely anglophone city (and region), I am always amazed by those who are fluently bilingual. Despite the fact that much of the world’s population speaks more than one language, it simply isn’t that common in North America, and so to me is always impressive. Senegal is home to a wide variety of local languages, with Wolof being the lingua franca of Dakar, and French being the ‘official’ language despite the fact few Senegalese consider it their mother tongue. So when M. Bah broached the topic of languages, I was quite interested to listen given that his speech is often a rolling mix of French, Wolof, and English, all of which he speaks with fluency. With little preamble, he said to me:
“You know, learning a new language is an opportunity. It opens you up to understanding a whole new way of thinking. Language frames how you see the world! You know? The words we have to express ourselves shape us, and larger than us, they shape our communities, and (!)… and our cultures. For example, just take a look at our group here today! There isn’t one person among our marvellous group who is not, at the very least, bilingual – how amazing is that! We have so many words at our disposal, so many words with which to express our ideas! And that’s how the world works, you know, it runs on ideas. We have to keep learning! We have to open our minds, and every time, every single time you learn something new, suddenly it opens up a whole new world. What a miracle! Truly, all you need is an idea and anything is possible. An idea is just like a key in the ignition. Its just siting there, waiting…but you, you just need to turn it, and suddenly so much is in motion. The motor is firing up, and all these processes are taking place under the hood, and you feel it hum to life! And then its running, and you can go anywhere with it! Yes, truly, an idea is just like a key! It always amazes me how far an idea can go. For instance, you know, I’ve had friends tell me that I changed their life, just from one tiny idea! And for me, it was nothing. It was no big deal. Honestly, it was just something I said! It cost me nothing and gave them so much. They took that idea and transformed it, invested in it, and it changed their life. That’s the power of human potential! You know, the best science is the study of other men. Some people forget that. They always forget that, but without that, we have nothing. We have to understand each other in order to work together. It is so important. Do you know what else is important? Eating well! And if you look, we have just arrived at our destination, so up you go, because I’m starving!”
Amazing, isn’t it? He had all this to say, all this enthusiasm, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet! As the group ate lunch in the home of a fellow OBG member, I kept glancing at M. Bah through out the meal. True to form, I never found him without a huge grin, a grin which only grew bigger when he stood up to organize the crowd into two affectionately labeled eating groups: Vorace (for the gluttonous eaters) and Coriace (for the stubborn eaters).
Throughout the whole visit, he was always listening, with his phone up in the air, recording the whole thing. After lunch, I took advantage of the shift in positions as everyone moved from the floor back to the couches to ask M. Bah why he was always recording, and he said:
“I’m so glad you asked! Well its simply because I find everything interesting! Everything! You never know where inspiration might come from, or who might be interested in seeing what you saw! You know, for years now I have been writing down, at night, what I have done that day. Who I saw, what we did, anything! I do it everyday. But, for me, the recordings call fill in the spaces. Everyday is so full of great moments, and I love to rewatch them and to share them with others. Say, now, do you remember what I was saying earlier about ideas? We have a few minutes now before tea is ready, and I want to talk to you about some ideas. An intellectual exchange, if you will. You see, I want to talk to you about development, you told me you studied this. Yes? Yes. Because you’re here learning about Senegal, tasting everything it has to offer, and so you’re gradually coming to understand how Senegal. And that’s good, but what is really important, is what you do with everything you’ve learned. Because, you see, I believe the world doesn’t really understand Africa, doesn’t understand Senegal. People always think we just want a hand out, or that we want to move away to other countries. It just isn’t true. We want what everyone wants, access to a good life, and the services that can make that possible. We have an expression, in Wolof, let me translate it for you! Do you know goats…do you see how they grow a beard? Okay, good, the expression says ‘The goat will die there where he grew his beard.’ That means that the goat will be born, will grow up, have children, and die in the place he has always known, in his home. People don’t want to move away, why would they? This is their home! And, you know, your home is as much a part of you as..as your skin! Why, think of your own home right now! Yes, I see you’re smiling, that means you understand! As I was saying, Africans in general, are looking for development models. And, you know, they’re looking at Europe and they’re looking at America. And they keep thinking “Europe, it took you 400 years to do what America did in less than half of that time.’ Now of course, America benefited from not being the first, but still, I think people are seeing these two situations and are starting to think. People are looking for ideas; remember what I said about ideas? That’s what many Africans are looking for, just ideas. As simple as that. But the problem is that some people are afraid of Africa, or worse! Worse because some people don’t even know Senegal exists. That’s really an amazing thought isn’t it? That you can live your whole life, and other people can live their whole lives, and neither of you are aware the country of the other even exists! And so, this is what I want you to do: teach people about Senegal! Go home, and tell them everything you felt, and saw, and thought. Tell them about how beautiful it is here, and all we have, and all that is left to do. We will all be better for the exchange you create. Ah, look, its tea time!”
Even now, just thinking about the conversation I had with M. Bah, I’m smiling. To me, M. Bah is one of those people you meet in your life that inspires you to live a life with deeper connections to those around you, a life where everything you do is purposefully done. Purposefully done, much like the conversation he had with me. It would be foolish to think that he didn’t have a motivation in sharing his ideas with me, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot also benefit from this opportunity he created. Who knows if we’ll all be better for the exchange I create, as M. Bah believes, but I know I’m the better for having met him. And from the looks of his latest email, it looks like he wants to meet again. Who knows what will be up for discussion this time!