Peace Corps Writers
What I Learned (page 2)

What I Learned

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     Still, she has shown determination to effect change, and that has inspired me in my own workaday world. If the village authorities will not implement clean-ups, she will — so she gathers her girls group and mobilizes a donkey cart and together they do what they can. Every day she is reminded that she is an outsider and a toubab (white person). Astou Diop has learned to disregard those constant calls of toubab that greet her whenever she walks the village paths. She has also learned to respond to children’s and adults’ demands for goods and gifts by saying Ba beneen yoon (another time), because they do not believe that, being a toubab, she is not rich. She does, however, respect the Quranic teachings on charity by finding food or small coins to give to the little talibés (students of marabouts). She has learned to avoid or reject misogynistic comments from men, although she is constantly wary and makes certain to travel with a partner or group when she must use the alham (minibus) or sept-places (seven-seater). Indeed, travel throughout Senegal can be a metaphor for Astou Diop’s experiences as an outsider: slow and bumpy. Yet she has responded to all these bumps on her road with determination.
Astou Diop is clearly a toubab. She had studied several classical and modern languages, but she knew from past experience that classroom success doesn’t always translate on to the real-world streets. Yet necessity is the mother of invention, and needing to get to a specific location before dark or not overpay for a purchase can lubricate the tongue. French is the lingua franca throughout the cities and urban regions of West Africa, but Astou Diop lives in a Wolof community. It has not been easy, but she laughs at her mistakes and presses on. She has taught me the value of persistence. By now, her French is good enough that she can teach classes in her village as well as in Dakar, and her Wolof impresses her villagers. Each time she steps from her compound into the village paths and streets, she participates in the ritual conversation that can last up to twenty minutes, inquiring about individuals, families, even countries. Furthermore, Astou Diop has made a practice of learning the taglines that accompany scores of Senegalese names. Curious as to why, when she was introduced as a Diop, people would respond with “Joop Jouba,” she discovered that these taglines to names are essentially praises or mottoes of the ancestors. Astou Diop soon realized that like most Westerners of this digital age, she would never truly master the art of oral tradition, so she started cataloging these last-name sayings. Their meanings are probably lost even to many present-day Senegalese — “Diop, you went to the field and forgot your tuft of hair;” “Sene, you have no teeth on top like a chicken, but you have gums.” But like the constant repetition of names when entering a room or joining a group, recognition of presence and being is signaled. The individual is acknowledged as part of a group, a history; the ancestors are alive and honored. Astou Diop’s desire to understand the language — thus the people — of her community has earned her respect and honor in her community, and our admiration.
There is a flashing moment in all parents’ lives when we grasp that our sons and daughters are no longer ours. It is a hard moment, for after we swell with the pride of our accomplishment for bringing our children to adulthood, our hearts tense at the recognition of loss. I fully understand that Jane — Astou Diop — is our child. But the young woman we saw as a Peace Corps worker in Senegal is more than the sum of all the parts we her parents have given her. And now she has given us so much more. The calls from college were few and far between, but there has been a fairly steady stream of communications coming from coastal Senegal: we know when she is on the move from her village when we receive e-mails or Skype messages. Occasionally, we receive telephone calls, and in the early days, villagers wanting to practice their English or French would beg her to let them speak to us. Used to lecturing university students, I had become used to tracking eyeballs as they rolled to the ceiling when I lectured my daughters at home about friends, behavior, duties. It is, in fact, true that I talked too much, dispensing too much advice (that was most often disregarded in any case). Now I have seen that Astou Diop is asked by villagers and colleagues to make decisions, and I have seen that she is quite capable of doing so, and without lecturing like a professor. And now, I check my tongue and do not offer opinions so freely — there is no need: it is clear that Astou Diop has opinions, and her opinions are the results of actual experience, not from textbooks, newspapers, or hearsay.

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