A call from Sebi

Its 3 pm on Sunday and I’m in my usual spot behind the terracotta table in my mom’s gallery/showroom in the South End of Boston, dabbing at little tufts of oil paint on paper plates, breathing in those thick fumes of turpentine and liquin and humming along to the fast tune Nitti Nit by Yoro Ndiaye. Keeping one eye on the occasional customer browsing amongst the Italian ceramics, another on my canvas, and my third eye on the photo of Ami Diop displayed my computer screen, its a new kind of multi-tasking.

That photo is one of my favorites. Her expression, so calm and confident with a touch of mirthful understanding at the corners of her eyes and lips as she stands in the “perombre” entrance way to her house, wearing a sky blue tshirt and a colorful headscarf knotted loosely to one side, is beautiful. It captures Ami Diop, my Senegalese best friend, at her simple fullest. I was kind of worried that working on this portrait series every day would be a little emotionally intense, like staring into the eyes of my past for five hours, but the truth is that 95 percent of the time my eyes blur the images into a maps of shapes and forms, patches of light and dark and layers of color, which I must translate onto my canvas.

“Hello, how are you,” I say, all in one sentence, as another group of Sunday shoppers wanders in from the outdoor vintage market in the parking lot. Fine, thankyou, how are you? They usually answer. Pause. Is this your work? — Honey, don’t touch that, it’s fragile!

No, actually, the ceramics are all done by professional artisans in Italy, it’s all imported from Tuscany. I’m just working on some of my own stuff here in the back.

Oh, well it’s all beautiful!

Hmm isn’t it? Smile.

It’s a fairly straight forward job. And convenient for me to have a time and space in which to work on my portrait series Many, Many Faces, an art project which I began last summer to fundraise and advertise for GCY. The idea is to combine images of American kids and adults with images of friends, family and acquaintances from Senegal, all in one series, to symbolize “the two worlds coming together,” a theme that still hovers beneath the surface of my seemingly smooth every day routine – popping up at unexpected moments.

Such as when my phone rings.

Hello? I answer cheerily.

Allo? Gaiya?! Man, Anna la!

My heart skips a beat. (It’s my host mother.)

Eih, Anna! Ca va? Nanga Def?!

Chuckles. Ca va? Nam oon naa la! (I miss you)

Ma la raw! (I miss you more)

Ca va?

Ca va bien. Ana waa ker ga? Ana xale yi? (How’s the family, how are the kids)

Nungi fi, nun nepp nungi fi. Ca va? (We are all here)

Wow, ca va bien, merci.

Nam oon naa la!

Its the usual pattern. And I’ve been through it so many times – I know how it goes. But it’s becoming trickier and trickier to whip out like that on the spur of the moment. I know what to say, but somehow the words feel stranger in my mouth, less smooth on the tongue, more just like stuff I’ve said before, or that I used to say, playing on a tape recorder.

As the glass door swings closed behind some probably very confused customers, familiar background noises flood my left ear from behind my host mother’s chuckles. The television first of all. Its seven o’clock there, time for De Tout Mon Coeur, or perhaps a newer Mexican Soap Opera dubbed in French. I might even hear fast Wolof chatter in the background, or even the clanging of a few pots. The best part is when my host mother presses the phone to little Mamor or Chuna’s ears, and I get the usual nanga def, nam oon naa la from their adorably small voices. I make sure to ask about each family member, and a few friends. I might ask what they are eating for dinner even though I know the answer (ceeb!). I might ask what’s new in Sebikotane, even though my host mother always tells me nothing has changed. Dara besul. Somehow I like hearing this. Selfish I suppose, but I like being able to imagine the patterns of their every day lives, from the sounds they’ll wake up to in the morning, to the last lights switched off at night. From the clothes they’ll wear on fridays, to the cups they sip their tea from.

Another couple strolls in, gliding their hands over the surfaces of the volcanic stone tables. I try not to worry about the funny looking old man with a beard flicking the inside of the bella frutta bowl to see what sound it makes.

The hardest part is to try to offer news about my life. Instead of saying that I’m painting, I just say I’m working.  About my summer job as a camp councelor, I just say I’ve been teaching. Everything has to be translated. And I always have to explain that I haven’t quite started university yet, the reason I left them. My host mother wishes me many, many good grades and diplomas. I ask her about the pictures I sent of me cooking ceebujeen at home, and she tells me she wants an American kitchen just like ours. And then its hard to know when to say goodbye. Even with the Senegalese you can only say nam oon naa la so many times. Well, maybe that’s just me who still has my limits. But the phone call is very expensive and so eventually we say our goodbyes – lots of merci’s and greet so and so for me. Even those seem to go on forever and I always hesitate to push the red button.

And then I’m back in Boston. I take a deep breath and sit down.

Hi, how are you?

Doing well, thanks.

Beautiful day isn’t it?

Yeah, it sure is.

You could say that I’m fully “readjusted” by now, but there are some things about my life, about my way of life, that seem to have changed permanently. Like the way I sometimes hold my left arm behind my back when I bend over to pick something up, just like Kine or Ami nDoye bending over the laundry bucket; the way I still can’t pass things to people with my left hand (its bad luck), the way I scrape food off the plates with my fingers rather than with a sponge, or cut slivers of onions right over the pan, instead of on a cutting board; the way I make sure to give my u’s and m’s little stems when I write by hand. My newfound interest and passion for education and children’s literacy. Having a second family on different continent.

I always tell people that even though I don’t know how or when, I know I’ll go back to Senegal. How could I not? To visit at the very least, but  in a way I also feel a responsibility to some day give back to my host community. I am the “partenaire” in charge of procuring other “partenaires” for an association of students working to improve the education system in Sebikotane. So far, with the help of a fifth grade class here in Boston for my capstone project, I’ve sent them one box of books. Just one box. And what a lot of work that was! This responsibility is exciting, inspiring, thrilling and daunting. On the surface things are pretty normal – just a few unexpected Wolof phone calls, emails to write in French, a few peculiar habits and what you could call one more extracurricular in college – but its quite a balancing act, a many dimensioned way of living, that I’m still trying to figure out.

Excuse me, how much does this glass table cost?

Oh, that one’s actually not for sale. Its from IKEA….