Mornings tend to be a good time for me in Senegal. The air is still cool and people are just starting to buzz with energy. If I wake up around 6:30 or 7 a.m., I can become part of the worldwide morning club I’ve always secretly wanted to be a member of but have never had the natural aptitude for. All my life, I have loathed it when people say things like, “Oh, I just had to get up at 6 a.m. and go for a run.” (First of all, what kind of sicko has that much nervous energy at the crack of dawn? Second, running is for over-achieving tightwads with no concern for the health of their knees. I hate running. I much prefer Saturday mornings lying in bed until 12 p.m. with my open laptop nearly tucked under my chin.) But somewhere inside me, I’ve always aspired to be that person who on weekends pops out of bed when the light is still fresh, who has the privilege of seeing the neighborhood as it just starts to come alive. I can imagine that if I did enjoy running—or believe in it—it would be a rewarding way of seeing the world, free of charge and virtually free of required sporting gear. But as a dancer I’ve been indoctrinated to think (and feel physically) that running is counterproductive, and simply as a person I suppose I’ve never had the sleep cycle to be of the morning milieu.
However, in Senegal, I am willing to experiment.* Not with running. Let’s not be ridiculous. But as for being a morning person, I can make a valiant effort, if only for research purposes. At 6:30 a.m., my host mother, Mariama, turns on a radio that blasts either the well-worn “new releases” of Senegalese mbalax music or an aggravating male voice saying “Alhamdullilah” over and over again. From this point on, it’s either time to face the world and all its noise, or paw around for my earplugs. If I accept the mission of waking up, I have time to prolong my bucket bath, and even heat up some water first to make it warm. I can indulge in a little of my inexplicable morning urges to do upkeep, those activities that always made me late for work when I lived in New York (a sudden fascination with organizing a drawer, writing a detailed e-mail reply, folding laundry). Then, by the time I emerge from my room, I will be lucky enough to see my eight host siblings—Mamadou, Aissatou, Aliu Koutayel, Mohamadou Lamine, Moussa, Mamadou Barry, Mourida, and Maimouna—before most of them leave for school. Perhaps if I do not have any work scheduled I can accompany Mariama to the market at 8 a.m.
Armed with a Dorothy-like plastic mesh picnic basket linked to her arm, my host mother joins dozens of other women in the daily march to the market. Much like a stock exchange, the market in Kolda opens to the chime of countless women filtering through the streets in technicolor. Because dress has such an important place in Senegalese culture, no respectable woman would leave for the market without her smart-looking outfit and matching head wrap (pick a pattern: flaming pink floral with blue flecks, giant yellow fish against green and white swirls, gold-to-blue tie-dye, etc.). Thus, every morning, a pilgrimage of colorful figures toward a pulsing maze of vendors and hustlers. With my host mother, a day’s worth of meals and 12 to 14 mouths to feed is what we’re shopping for. Into Dorothy’s basket will go onions, cut squash, whole fish, bouillon cubes, sacs of peanut sauce, garlic, and hot peppers. She keeps stores of rice, oil, sugar, and other staples at home. In some women’s baskets are live chickens docilely nestled amongst tomatoes, eggs, bissap leaves, and bags of spices.
Being at the market in the morning has many advantages: the best produce, the best outdoor temperature, and for me, the best numbers practice. In Pulaar, all prices are expressed as divided by the number 5. This is because 5 CFA is the lowest denomination in coins, but still, why people think this practice is easier I haven’t a clue. If something costs 100 CFA, you express it in Pulaar as “twenty.” If something costs 225 CFA, people automatically know it as “forty-five.” In the vegetable market, you do not haggle. But it is useful to know that a group of four limes is always 50 CFA, a trio of onions is 150 CFA, and to automatically know the Pulaar numbers that accompany the French numbers in your head.
But perhaps what I’m mesmerized by is morning itself: its relative coolness, its purpose-oriented hustle, and the way that time seems to be under my control—there’s still plenty of it left in the day. I’m happy here in the mornings. Breakfast, thankfully, is self-directed: I can choose to eat what is already at the house or escape to buy bread, spicy beans, hard boiled eggs, tea, or whatever else I want with no judgment since breakfast comes at too busy a time to be a family affair. And as I will get to in a later post, being able to control my food and its flavors is an opportunity I like having the time to savor.
*Being in a new locale has historically liberated me to latch onto new things. When I studied in Morocco, I learned to love onions and tolerate raisins, both of which I had previously—for no apparent reason—avoided. In Senegal I recently had a breakthrough with bananas. Anyone who knows me well knows I dislike(d) bananas. Banana bread, banana splits, banana-flavored things: disgusting. Baby food. But because of recent gastrointenstinal events I’ve created a positive psychological relationship with bananas and their corrective effects on rapid losses of potassium. Plus, since they need to be peeled they don’t require a bleach soak. They are ready to be eaten straight from the market. And in my current fruit-and-vegetable deprived world, that is simply golden to me.