My grandmother had 4 children. One is my uncle Saleu who now lives with my family in the US, another passed away many years ago (I don’t know his name), my dad, of course, is one, and the youngest is my Aunt Maryama, who passed away last year.
Now I want to talk a bit about my aunt. Since 2002 she was living in Dakar, Senegal with her 5 children. I didn’t know any of them, or anything about them for that matter, until 3 years ago when my cousin Kuta, my aunt’s middle child, moved to the US after marrying a close family friend. That in its self is its own story, but even I don’t know all the details.
Kuta is my age, but there was such a big language barrier that I didn’t get to know her that well. I was also away at school most of the time. When I came back from Brazil with a little Portuguese under my belt I was looking forward to getting to know her better, but by that time she had taken off to Senegal to visit her family. When she came back from Senegal I was only weeks away from coming to Bissau. As you can tell, our paths haven’t crossed much.
Fast forward to last week. I got a visit at work from my 12-year-old cousin and some young women I didn’t know. To my surprise it was my cousin Sali, Kuta’s older sister and my Aunt’s second child. I was really excited to finally meet her! I had been mentally planning since I got to Bissau how I would be able to get to Senegal to see her and my other cousins. Meeting her here saved me a trip and inspired me even more to go to Senegal.
She said she was here because my dad had called her and told her to go to Bafata to try and take her brother to a Moor, or a spiritual healer. Her older brother, my cousin Oumaru, is not doing well. He has a psychological problem that most of the family believes was caused by excessive drug use. So can a moor cure that? I’m not sure. But she came anyways and has a big job ahead of her.
So I went to Bafata to see her and also give some family members money that my dad had sent. Bafata, even though there is nothing to do there, is such a cool little city. I always eat really good food while I’m there, so I think that’s part of the reason I enjoy it so much.
I caught the 7am bus and arrived around 11am. I immediately offered to accompany my cousin Sali to the Market where it’s live, vibrant, and full of smells and colors. To her surprise I knew my way around pretty well since I had spent a week in Bafata in April.
But while walking back from the market I got my monthly dose of harassment. Someone who I thought was Mauritanian, but must have been a fair-skinned Fula, was walking towards us and speaking loudly. It didn’t occur to me until my cousin responded that he was speaking to us. He was asking who I was and where I was from. My cousin responded with,” she is your kin, she is Fula.” But he didn’t seem to believe her. As we approached each other he walked straight towards me and grabbed my arm, still asking where I was from. I looked at him told him to let go and tried to keep walking by. He tightened his grip and kept me from passing. Struggling to get him to let go, I used my other hand to remove his arm and then he grabbed the front of my shirt, pulling me towards him. Then he let go and walked away laughing.
My cousin didn’t say a word, just shook her head and changed the subject as if nothing had happened. But I was livid!! What the hell was that guys problem?! I yelled that at him, but I really wanted to punch him in the face. But what was I going to do, go and chase him down? Having been robbed not even two weeks before I wasn’t up for another physical altercation. I walked the rest of the way back to the house disheartened by the harassment and violence that I was experiencing.
We got back to the house and Sali made Cheb, a traditional Senegalese dish. Holy guacamole is it delicious! It's simple, rice with fish and veggies, but the flavor is out of this world!
We spent the afternoon relaxing at the house. I was very entertained by Sali because she kept commenting on the fact that I was wearing shorts. To give this some context, you have to understand that my dad is an Imam, an equivalent to a priest or pastor, and so he has very high expectations for the way his children ( my siblings and I) dress, behave and portray ourselves as Muslims. ( Just so you know, women aren’t allowed to wear anything above the knees) This was a big struggle for me growing up because I mostly lived with my mom and didn’t have to follow his ‘rules’ while I was at her house. As i got older i learned to become adaptable to the 2 different ways of life.
Sali had only seen photos of me coming from my dad’s house in which I’m covered from head to toe and wearing a Hijab, or head scarf. Then there I was in person in shorts and with my hair not covered. So all the comments on the shorts was her trying to figure me out and in a subtle sense almost shaming me for not being more conservative in my attire. But after I asked if she used to wear shorts before she got married she stopped commenting. We both knew the answer was yes.
But even now I struggle with how I should present my self to my Muslim family members here. Part of me just wants to be ME, the other part is conscious of the expectations placed on me by my dads family and my dad to behave and dress like a Muslim woman. Sali wasn't the only family member to bring something like that up to me, but she was definitatley the only one who kept bringing it up.
In the late afternoon we went to see my cousin Oumaru. When we arrived he was seated on his straw mat, his clothes were filthy and tattered as if he hadn’t bathed in weeks. Sali’s project, as I mentioned, is to get her brother to see a Moor. It hasn’t been easy because he refuses to go anywhere with her. It’s strange because one minute he seems completely ‘normal’ (whatever that means) and the next its clear his mind is on another planet.
We tried to get him to come back to the house with us to shower and change clothes. Again he refused, but accepted to join us when we offered to buy him food.
He accompanied us back home and out of nowhere he grabbed my hand so we could hold hands as we walked. My eyes widened as my germaphobe past life came rushing into existence. My mind was screaming “OHHHHH MY GOD… OHHHHH MY GOD.... HIS HANDS ARE SO DIRTY AND HE IS TOUCHING ME!!!”
Sali looked at me, wondering what I was going to do. This entire time she hadn’t come closer then 2 ft to him. As we walked things would happen that were an excuse for me to delink arms with him, but he always came back for my hand. By the 2nd or 3rd time I calmed down. Then I was disgusted with my self for being disgusted by my cousin holding my hand.
I can always wash my hand, I thought, and at the end of the day, we might not be able to communicate clearly ( he speaks english and I, creole, but its more the fact that he wasn’t mentally present) but we are family, and if this is the moment we share, then let it be. We held hands for 15 of the 20 min walk. Eventually he said he needed to get home so he left us to walk the rest of the way our selves.
We got back to the house (and immediately washed my hands) and we heard that 2 incidences of violence had occurred. One was a bar fight that happened across the street where one man stabbed the other with 2 broken beer bottles.(They were fighting over 2,000xof or 4 dollars) The stabbed man was rushed to the hospital.
The other incident was my Aunt Aissato!! She had over heard the neighbor's daughters bad mouthing her daughter while she was taking a shower. Naturally, she asked them to stop. They stopped, but also launched a rock and a piece of wood in the direction of my aunt. The rock missed her, but the wood piece pegged her right in the head. She ended up needing to go to the hospital to get 5 stitches. ( Bathrooms aren't inside the house. They are usually a designated section outside of the house where there is a hole in the ground to handle business and another space where you take your bucket of water to shower.)
When my aunt got back to the house there was alot of drama and people crying and yelling. From my understanding there were already past issues with the neighbors but this incident was the icing on the cake. The next morning the neighbors and the city's cheif came over to discuss what happened and in the end the neighbors offered to cover all my Aunts medical bills.
I left my cell phone in the car I took to get home. That's 2 cell phones in 2 weeks! im really hoping this doesn't keep up. But Hilha made me feel a little better when she told me how in February of last year she lost 6 cell phones in one month. haha!
It was a fast trip, but filled with, well, let's just leave it at filled. On the way home I kept thinking about how I thought i knew some things about my family, but i really had no idea. Six months ago the fact that My dad is from a village in a small west African country just about summed it up.
But its trips like these that remind me why I even came to this country. It might not be fun filled with family parties and hugs and kissed. And I know some family members look at me as a ticket out of Guinea-Bissau. And I know every time I visit family there is an expectation I will give them money. But these are real experiences about how raw life is here. There no sugar coating it and there is no faking it.