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Learning to See and Other Short Stories and Memoirs from Senegal - Review by Leita Kaldi Davis


Gary Engelberg has lived in Senegal, West Africa for over fifty years. He is co-founder, along with Lillian Baer, former Director and current Board Chairman of Africa Consultants International (ACI), a non-governmental organization that promotes cross-cultural communication, American Study Abroad programs, health and social justice, including LGBTI rights. It’s otherwise known as The Baobab Center in Dakar.

I became acquainted with Gary, Lillian and ACI when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Sine-Saloum region of Senegal from1993 to 1996. I have cherished their friendship and that of the staff at ACI that has become almost entirely Senegalese since Gary’s retirement a few years ago. Reading Learning to See filled me with nostalgia, but, most important, it’s a powerful collection of memoirs and short stories that portray the process of understanding another culture.


Gary’s life has made a difference to countless people who have had the good fortune to find themselves in his path. About writing Learning to See, Gary modestly says, “For me, time flows over my experiences like water over stones, smoothing out the rough edges and leaving me with polished nuggets of shiny but imprecise memories. I can often remember the essentials, but find it difficult sometimes to remember the details.”

I’m afraid I can’t agree because his stories contain intricate details that coalesce around a central core or theme “ ... like ripe mangoes falling from the tree.” They unfold, pulling the reader along an arc that peaks, then descends to a dramatic denouement. I found some editing imperfections, but I chose to ignore them, captivated as I was by these stories.


The first chapter, “Learning to See,” describes Gary as a young Peace Corps Volunteer challenged by the mysteries of a foreign culture. He wonders why his neighbors pour cold water in front of their doors in the morning, and vendors splash water around their stalls. A woman confides to him that the cleansing washes evil night spirits away. Similarly, every day around noon and at sundown children are called into houses, and a silence descends, because those moments are “cracks in time” that belong to the spirits. Almost everyone wears gris-gris — amulets prepared by marabouts or holy men to protect against evil or to achieve special petitions. (I don’t know if Gary ever wore one, but I did, and my own village marabout wrought amazing magic.)

Gary was assigned to assist in teacher training at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Dakar. Though he felt too young and inexperienced to assume such a role, he guessed that he was “ ... better than nothing.” (That reminded me of the criterion for teaching eco-tourism. If you had ever stayed in a hotel, you were qualified.)


We all cringe at the gaffs we made before we learned some sort of protocol in our countries of service, such as happened to Gary when he was invited with a date to the Bal de Fin d’Année (End of Year Ball)…


In the story of “Fadel” we learn about the consequences of trans-African travel in search of work that separates a man from his wife and inevitably pushes him into the bed of another woman. Black crows follow Fadel, harbingers of death. As Fadel personalizes the insidious HIV/AIDS epidemic, fiction becomes gruesome fact.

On a lighter note, “Maty’s New Friend” is like a fable. It’s about a depressed American woman, a struggling Senegalese woman and three silver dollars.

“Return of the Migrant” describes the current heart-rending plight of African refugees desperately grasping for footholds in Europe. “Between 2004 and 2009 Senegalese were the second largest African nationality immigrating to Spain ...” We’ve all seen the videos of capsizing rafts and teeming refugee camps, but sometimes we forget that tragedy concerns individuals, not numbers. Lamine, who is stranded in a Barcelona slum for seven years, lives in misery with five other comrades, unable to return to Senegal. His wife and children, especially the oldest, Kalidou, “ ... had grown up with a photo for a father.” Lamine’s only solace is teaching soccer to neighborhood kids. When one of his room-mates starts dealing drugs, they all end up in chains and are “ ...  deported in the most humiliating fashion as local police paraded them like captured animals through the crowds.” Overcome with shame, Lamine returns to his village, penniless.  There is still no work for him, and his wife, Nafy, has sold her jewelry and family plots of land to finance his dream.  His last punishment is inflicted when his beloved son, Kalidou, dies of cerebral malaria.  But this story has an unexpected happy ending!


“Out of Step” is the story of Aliou, a goor-jigeen, a “boy-girl” who grows up gay, cossetted by his family and community as he learns womanly skills like cooking, crocheting and hair braiding that enable him to earn a living as he matures. Throughout history, gay men have been an integral facet of Senegalese society, often becoming advisors to princes and women leaders, organizers of weddings and baptisms, and they were spectacular dancers…All is well in the gay world until the AIDS epidemic strikes Senegal in the early 1990s, and at first the gay population becomes an important part of a national strategy to stop its spread. Aliou participates in the International Conference on AIDS in Africa that was held in Dakar in 2008 where he meets a woman journalist who interviews him for an article. The Moslem community that forms about 90% of Senegal’s population are outraged by the conference, viewing homosexuality and AIDS as a Western curse. So begins years of persecution… The traditionally tolerant and compassionate Senegalese become homophobic under the influence of fear-mongering fundamentalists who create an “observatory” movement to spy on everybody who might be seen as “deviant.” Then the article written by the woman journalist appears, a sensitive, well-written piece that opens a social dialogue among liberal readers who try to staunch the flames of religious radicalism. Aliou grows old, feeling betrayed by his country, and robbed of his human rights. When he dies, all the men in the neighborhood attend him, pray for him, and inter him in a cemetery that had not allowed other homosexual men a decent burial. Hundreds of people gather to present condolences and praise his life, remembering the special place he had filled in their community...

Most of the stories have such poignant endings, one-liners that wrap up the narrative or leave you wondering. Wolof words are sprinkled throughout, like red pepper that spices up dialogues. Gary excels at painting portraits with words. There are also fascinating photographs of a handsome young Gary in 1965, a woman dancing in a gold dress, one hand on her skirt, the other combing the air above her, shady grass huts of a Toucouleur village, the famous Baobab Orchestra on stage, the thoughtful face of President Leopold Sedhar Senghor, and Barack Obama with Senegalese President Macky Sall.


“Gérard Chenet,” one of many Haitian artists and writers who fled Papa Doc’s infamous reign, found a haven in Senegal. He built an artists’ retreat on the coast, south of Dakar, a whimsical place with turrets and towers and Moorish-looking arches that he calls Sobo Badé after the vodou gods of thunder and lightning. Chenet shares Senghor’s vision of “negritude.” He sees rhythm in everything — architecture, painting and music — what he calls the “. . . principle of universal concordance of rhythm.”


“Dining with Barack” is a delightful description of Barack and Michelle at a dinner with President Macky Sall in Dakar a few years ago. Gary offers us a peek at a magical evening when the two First Ladies got up to dance to Youssou NDour’s orchestra, and the two Presidents followed them.


The story of the rise and fall and rise again of the famous Baobab Orchestra is here in “Kolere Looks to the Past,” featuring singer Rudy Gomis, who described their sound as “ ... a Senegalese mosaic” combining music from all over Africa with the distinctive griot voice of Senegal.”


“Annie Goes to Africa.” Gary’s story of his 86-year-old mother’s visit to Dakar is a charming portrait of a feisty woman who is befriended by countless respectful and solicitous Senegalese people. What she remembered most about her trip was that “They sure know how to treat old people over there.”


Gary’s 45-year friendship with the Sarr family, especially the patriarch, El Hadji Sarr, described in “Last Days,” is an intimate tribute to an extraordinary family. “ ...  not all families were as welcoming or had the peace and harmony I found in the Sarr compound....  They set the bar high for the quality of human relations, and many other families paled in comparison.”


When El Hadji died, Gary grieved within the family that had become his own. Mourners comforted him with the phrase, Sigindigalli — “Look up to see those ties that bind all of us together.”

        

Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon,   as well as several travel memoirs. (amazon.com or lkaldi@hotmail.com).

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