A Writer Writes

What I Learned by Visiting Our Daughter’s Peace Corps Site . . .
And Other Tales of Motherhood

by Ruthmarie Mitsch

SHE WAS the difficult daughter. The one who stormed from the dinner table, slammed doors, reduced me to tears of frustration on a daily basis, proclaimed the most often how she could hardly wait to leave home. She did leave home — first for college, next for summer service projects in the States and in the Philippines. Then after college graduation, she left for a Peace Corps assignment in Senegal.
     Seeing that same daughter earlier this year in her remote fishing village of Sokone, in the Sine-Saloum delta on the Atlantic coast of Africa, was an awesome experience. Literally. I had always thought that we, her parents, should be an inspiration to her and that she should want to follow in our footsteps. It turned out to be the other way around. When my husband and I and college-student daughter had the opportunity to visit Jane at her Peace Corps home for three weeks during Christmas break, that experience changed forever my relationship with this daughter. It was during that brief trip that she became my teacher, my role model.
     Her house is a separate small building in a compound enclosed by a cement wall. There are two electric outlets in the house that work when there is electricity, but there is no landline for a telephone and no internet connection for her laptop that sits upon a handmade desk. There is a small stove and a tiny, nearly empty refrigerator. There is a toilet — a hole in the floor. There is a shower rigged nearby. There is no hot water — and no drop of water, whether dish water or shower water, goes to waste. There are no windows, just a door. There is a mattress on the floor, and there is a mosquito net, an absolute necessity. There are lots of books brought and sent from home, and some Senegalese drums next to the guitar she brought with her. There are many photos of friends and family taped on the walls. There is a world map that fills the entire wall above her desk. In this life, Jane is Astou Diop.
     Astou Diop has shown me many things — in particular, how to be patient and flexible. Western time is not Sokone’s time. The flow of daily life is different, set by the chants of the muezzin, and on Sundays by the addition of bells from the Catholic Church two streets over. Things happen in slow motion in her new world; they happen inshallah (God willing). Much discussion must take place to set in motion any activity. Astou Diop has been frustrated that what she sees as simple plans are still not implemented after repeated rounds of talks, that so much time is given to the ritual of discussion but not to action. Priorities? A mayor, who promised equipment for an area clean-up but then sent it elsewhere, refused to be disturbed from his involvement in judging a local beauty contest. Astou Diop hopes, inshallah, that the mayor will reschedule delivery of the equipment before the stinking goat carcass and other garbage strewn in the street rot even more. The amount of time devoted to daily living tasks is similarly significant. In the homes, much time is given to meal preparation, as dishes are all made from scratch. Water must be boiled so that dishes can be washed by hand. Clothes are washed by hand and laid out to dry in the sun. The nightly ritual of tea is one that punctuates her schedule, a time that Astou Diop has come to love. After dinner, tea is prepared outdoors, on a brazier, by her host brother. The tea, served in very small glasses, is poured at least three times, increasing in strength and sweetness with each decoction. This “ceremony” is a social event, not about drinking tea so much as it is about sharing time, thought, laughter with family and friends under starry skies. Astou Diop has come to see that it is these rituals that bring families and neighbors together, and she has become more accepting of the meetings, understanding that each voice added to the pepper pot of discussion increases its flavor and that the patience required for daily activities leads to an appreciation of the work of life, and the life of work. She has learned patience.
     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.
     Astou Diop’s older sister had spent a year of service in Los Angeles and can relate to her concerns about any long-term effect she might have upon a community and fears about how to reintegrate into the American lifestyle. The oldest is a great support. The youngest sister, then, has two models of service. Of course the plumbing, the housing, and the roads were eye-openers for her when she visited Astou Diop, and of course she was relieved to return to her university dorm and all its electrical and plumbing features, but we had wanted her to see for herself the distance between her middle-class Midwestern lifestyle and that of a large part of the world. (I joked that this lesson would be worth the price of her airplane ticket.)
     And Astou Diop always reminds us that her Peace Corps friends like to make detours to her village because she has a comfortable home and a friendly host family — and because her host mother is an excellent cook. Although our family has traveled widely on several continents and have tried to adapt to different customs, we were a bit flustered to have to remember at each meal in a home to remove our shoes on the porch, dip our hands into the bowl of water set at the entrance to the house, and then enter. We had never sat on the ground for a meal other than a picnic, eating with our hands from a common pot. Imagine: so used to having or securing the best, we embarrassed Astou Diop at first by reaching across the pot for fish or chicken from someone else’s “territory” and by vainly looking for a beverage. We did not remember Astou Diop’s advice to say Jerejef, surna! and then stand up and leave when we had had enough. At home, I always chastised family members for wanting to leave before the entire group had finished the meal. In Sokone, we visitors liked the new way. But it took getting used to, and we were humbled that something as simple as eating a meal would make us have to stop and think so much about how to act.
     Likewise, accompanying Astou Diop through the village and experiencing the greeting procedures humbled us. Here, I was at the mercy Astou Diop’s experience and language skills. But I was impressed (and grateful) that she felt at ease in the language and gestural habits. Do we parents always think we know more than our children — that we’ve had more experience and are thus wiser? Our visit to Astou Diop’s village reminded me that experience is not a matter of chronology. Here I had to turn to Astou Diop to ask, “How do I say . . . ?” or “What do I do next?” or “Why are they doing that”? or “Is that a good price?” These are the kinds of questions that as a parent I had been used to getting and answering. Now the tables have been turned and my child is my teacher.
     Astou Diop has always been musical, with twelve years of piano lessons, perhaps eight with the saxophone, marching in high school and university bands. It has been a joy to have her pass along recommendations: “I love the new Youssou N’Dour album!” she writes, and I search for it at iTunes. I smile to myself when she says that she and the seven-year-old visiting niece of her host family laugh together singing the latest songs by Vivian. My musical horizons have expanded.
     Yes, we pay more attention to the politics and popular news of West Africa these days; we have our daughter who can interpret these for us. From politics to PCV lingo, we have grown through our daughter’s Peace Corps experience. She was the difficult daughter, yes, but now instead of thinking of her as difficult, I think instead of how she has overcome difficulties. Visiting Astou Diop in Senegal made me realize how wonderful it is when parents can learn from their children.

Ruthmarie Mitsch lives in Columbus, Ohio, and is managing editor of a scholarly journal on oral and written literatures of Africa and teaches African literature at The Ohio State University. She and her husband are the parents of three daughters.