The Women Who Mattered

There are two people in my village of Keur Mandoumbe who never treated me like a westerner, who loved me for me, listened when I had problems, and made my life in village bearable. The following stories are not written through “rose colored glasses,” but instead are proof of the bright spots that God puts in our lives no matter how dark the forest we live in may be:


Naffy, all dressed up in an outfit made from fabric that my mom brought over when she visited, and showing off the snacks from my going away party

Naffy, all dressed up in an outfit made from fabric that my mom brought over when she visited, and showing off the snacks from my going away party

Naffy, her husband, and daughter Mymanar

Naffy, her husband, and daughter Mymanar

Naffy is the “doctor” in the village. Specifically she has the education and expertise of a nurse practitioner. She is very conservative: she doesn’t leave the house with out full head covering and long sleeves, she doesn’t shake hands with men, and she always averts her gaze when talking to any men of authority. However, she is the strongest Senegalese woman I’ve ever met. She talks to women about birth control constantly, helping them access it with or without their husbands permission. She finds work around the hospital, her home, and her fields for many community members who really need the extra money. Her word means everything. She has been in Keur Mandoumbe for over 10 years, and has gained respect from everyone in the region. She has a number of namesakes in the village and surrounding villages that attest to her much loved position. She initially comes off as very professional, and almost a little cold, but through hundreds of evenings spend sitting on her front porch, enjoying the silence of her well positioned house (with no kids or goats running around screaming) we became friends. I knew I had made it into the inter circle when she let me into her house while she was just wearing a camisole, slip, and head band.

We talked about real issues: women’s rights and education, war and tribal conflicts, my love life, my issues with my host dad. She told me about how difficult it was to be a second wife, a position a well educated woman like her never intended to be in, but she fell in love and determined it was God’s plan for her.

She could tell that my weight, energy, and skin were going from bad to worse as the lack of nutrients in my village diet took its tool on my body, so she started calling me over for dinner almost every day. Suddenly my diet had more beans and meat than I knew what to do with, and I actually started gaining weight. For the next year I ate at her house often, at least a few times a week, and especially when I felt weakness overtaking my body, realizing I desperately needed protein and iron. She was thrilled to help take care of me. And having grown up in an upper middle class family, understood the change that was happening to my body because of the diet.

She understands western concepts more than most people I encountered, but understood that the western world was not better than Africa, just different. And coveting the luxuries of America would not get Senegal anywhere. She is extremely devoted to her family, and had a baby, Mymanar, while I was there.

My last day in village, she threw me a surprise party with many of my friends and family in attendance. Though she did not say much during the party, afterwards, hanging out with the women that work in the hospital garden, she expressed just how much my friendship meant to her. And then sent me on my way with 5 kilos each of sugared and salted peanuts. I could not believe how much she had given to me, in the ways of friendship, support, care taking, and gifts, that I could never be able to repay. She truly embodied the Senegalese tradition of taranga (hospitality).


Astu, wearing her only outfit that fits the baby bump, and her daughter Fatou

Astu, wearing her only outfit that fits the baby bump, and her daughter Fatou

Astu and I in the evening on Tabaski

Astu and I in the evening on Tabaski

Astu is married to my host brother, making her my sister-in-law, but in Wolof I got to refer to her as my “wife.” But really, she was my sister. Astu has never studied French, but knows enough Arabic to help keep track of names, phone numbers, and gifts given during weddings and baby naming ceremonies. I don’t think she has ever travelled farther than our small regional capital. She speaks with a very strong accent, mumbling most of her words, which shows her education level and birth place (far in the bush). I could barely understand her when I moved in, but after a while I picked up her accent and she was able to understand me better than anyone (even when I mumbled things under my breath that I didn’t think anyone picked up on). She had the hut right next to mine, actually she used to live in my hut but she moved into a new one so I could have the one with a large backyard. On days that she would cook, and therefore not have to go out to the fields, she used to periodically come into my room just to sit and hang out. She always made sure I was included in family events, and was the only person that seemed to remember that I did not like palm oil on my Mafe. She had the most adorable daughter, Fatou, who was the only kid who would comfortably come into my room the same as she would any other. Fatou would walk around the village with me if I wanted her to, and was pretty much adorable all the time (when she wasn’t beating up on other kids, or throwing temper tantrums about not getting her way). Astu made me feel normal. She never asked me for anything excessive, just to borrow normal stuff that she didn’t have (wash basins, matches, my pit toilet). She joked with me, hung out for no reason other than being bored together, and asked me real questions about my other life back home, or even my life in Senegal outside of village. She is one of the most beautiful people I have ever met, 6’2” with broad shoulders and long legs, she can carry more weight on her head than anyone else, even at 9 months pregnant.

During my first year, my host brother (her husband) took off in the middle of the night with a friend to Libya to try to find work. He is one of the most negative people I met in Senegal, constantly complaining about how hard work was there and mentioning that work anywhere else would be better. So I wasn’t surprised when he left, just disappointed. While he was gone Astu had no money, she had to rely on my host dad, who wasn’t exactly free with giving out money to the women of the family, for everything. I kind of hoped that my brother would never come back, and that Astu would go back to her own family and be better taken care of there. But eventually he did come back, with no money, and things returned to relative normal.

She is insanely optimistic, and never complains about anything. Coming from a different village, she only really has friends with in our compound, but that seems to be enough for her. I think that she understand me better because she isn’t from our village. She understands what it is like to come into a family and not know anyone, the difficulty in figuring out family politics and habits when no one actually talks about those things. Because of this she always freely told me stuff about anyone in the family, without telling everyone else that I even asked (which is what most people would do). The morning I left she was the only person who woke up at 5 with me (although maybe thats just cause she was the only who could hear me) and came into my room and sat while I packed. I gave her most of the stuff left in my room, just because I would rather she had it over anyone else, and because she didn’t ask for anything.

That was the biggest thing that stuck with me, about both of these women: they loved me because I was there and needed to be loved, not because I could give them anything.


One thought on “The Women Who Mattered

  1. Hi Sara – I just got on to your blog because Jen Swarbrick sent me the link. I loved reading about what you are doing! Looking forward to reading more. Have so many good memories of you!

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