By Marieme Foote
The air is heavy and dense, and sweat trickles down my neck. I am standing in the middle of a dry open field – one of the few open lots of land in the city of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Other than the large baobab tree, which has been standing at the corner of the field for as long as anyone in my family can remember, there is nothing but sand and rocks.
Goat herders settle their animals under the shade of the baobab to shield them from the sun, which can burn you in a matter of seconds. These old men stand, their skin dark and dry from their lives outside. They lean back firmly against the tree and simply scan the space, their legs firmly planted into the ground. And just like my grandmother, in between their dry cracked lips they hold a long piece of wood used to clean their teeth, a sothiou. They wear the clothes their forefathers wore – long kaftans and pointed, worn-out shoes. Shifting around them, their goats lie tired and alert, with skin stretched so taut I can see the outlines of their bones. They are hungry. The sparse greenery that used to cover all of Dakar is gone, the surrounding lands are overgrazed. There is only the occasional tough, dried-out weed. Not much for a goat.
The country before the French came was nomadic. The environment was fragile, and herders had no choice but to move their animals from place to place. Or so it was until the Europeans came with their plans for borders and fences and property. The little land left for nomadic herding was not enough to sustain them. What land there was, was overused, and there was little left for the inhabitants but heat and dust. And in the modern Dakar, that’s still the case: landlocked, tired goats under one of the last baobab trees in the city, piles of their feces scattered about the area, and swarms of flies and mosquitos that quickly drive everyone away but the goat herders, who have few places left to go. This is their space, one of the last long-lived traditions still alive, in this postcolonial, neocolonial city.
When I was growing up, my mother always complained about the rancid smell of the feces and goat – and the trash the city people threw into the park.
When I was a child, sometimes on the weekends and in the late afternoon after the sun began to set, my friends and I went to play in this open field. The girls sat with our hair done up, smelling of burnt hair and floral perfume, chatting nonstop about our days until our mouths grew dry and our voices hoarse. The boys with their skinny legs, some with no shoes, their bodies covered in dust, ran back and forth on the field kicking an old ball. Sometimes it looked as if they were kicking up a dust storm with their own might, and their bodies would get lost in the haze of the sand blackened by hot sun. The sound of laughter and noise filled the air as jokes were told and we skidded rocks across the dirt.
This field was our salvation, our space away from the loud urban noise, away from the melting paved roads, away from the rusted-out taxicabs that almost ran all of us over. This was our space where we could temporarily leave the world where numbers mattered, and our fates had already been decided for us. This was our salvation from the new tall buildings being constructed in an already congested city, where open potholes often claimed the lives of hapless pedestrians. All that seemed to matter was the paving of land and the construction of roads with lights that could let you see at night. But all that concrete and nighttime light never solved the problems.
To many inhabitants, and for many years, this lot of land was unprofitable empty space, of little use to anyone. But many years later when I came back, developers had built tall new apartment buildings for trendy young couples and expats looking for homes. All modern – from the new electronic glass doorways that opened when you walked past, to the chrome-lined windows that reflected the intense sun to passers-by. From wooden floors just wiped down with a chemical concoction in the cold, air-conditioned artificial lobby that spilled smell and coolness into the heat, to the dry and dull music played through speakers – a remixed classical composition that scraped at my ears.
Signs outside the buildings listed the price for 3-bedroom “modern” apartments at $300,000 dollars. White women with their woven “African” baskets and soft faces spilled out the cold doors, eyes ignorantly innocent and warm. Their uncalcified hands looked as if these women had never touched the land or laundry or in any way ever worked a day in their lives. Their skin was so white it felt blinding when they passed alongside – sticking out against our dark skin. Their so often blue crystals of eyes sent shivers down our spines. Some were here as English teachers. Others worked on developmental projects in the city. But their smiles always held a hint of pity whenever they looked my way or at the people that walked by them. It often felt as if we were worlds apart. And perhaps we literally were – most didn’t last a year.
As my mother and I drove past these buildings on the way home, I noticed that there was only dust and sand left. Every hint of greenery had been absorbed. Not one baobab tree sat at the corner of any intersection or space. Not even the one that had been there forever.
My mother tied her headscarf over her mouth so as to not breathe in the dust. “It feels as if we are in a dust storm!” she complained to me. She told me how much hotter it all had become while I was gone and how the city was getting dustier and dustier. Yet not a second later, she told me how ecstatic she was at the increasing construction – all those buildings with their “jaw-dropping” architecture.
As we drove around the town I saw kids squeezed on the sides of busy intersections. I saw them play in between cars on busy roads. I knew some had already died, and that more would – all for the sake of the new car dealerships, apartment buildings, and some Internet start-ups – “The new Dakar.”
I stretched my neck back and looked around what had once been that wonderful dry field. I imagined the goat herders as they stood with their goats at the edges of sidewalks and the stench of the trash-infested corners. We turned a corner and suddenly, there they were – two goat herders, their faces marred by old age, wrinkles, and exhaustion. We stopped the car to ask for the price of a goat. My mother wanted to sacrifice one for the religious holiday. While she negotiated prices with the younger herder, the older man stood awkwardly at the corner of the intersection, his back leaning against the open air, the cars hurling past him down the road, in a rush to get nowhere.
Marieme is the president of the Student Governance Council at Ithaca College. She is a junior with a double major in politics and environmental studies. She moved to Ithaca from Silver Springs, MD.