Sunday, May 28, 2006

(snapshot of life in Senegal)

- Fatou,* the project’s administrative assistant, epitomized Senegalese style. Every day she trotted out a new Vogue-worthy outfit, sometimes modern, sometimes traditional, and often a new hairpiece or hair extension. Many Senegalese women, I learned, kept their scalps nearly bald, allowing them the versatility of a Halle Berry flip one day, an “I Dream of Jeannie” ponytail the next. You’d spot the discarded hairpieces every so often walking down the street, ratty and tromped over with dust.

One day Fatou’s mother stopped by, a shy, traditionally dressed woman. We met her young niece as well, a toddler Fatou let play with her computer keyboard and cell phone. “La executive,” the family observed with pleasure. Fatou’s many kin lived in Medina, a historic old neighborhood crowded with stalls, shops and goats around which Dakar’s French architecture had evolved, and later 1970s-vintage banks, hotels and NGO offices.

As was true for many in the area, in shallah was Fatou’s guiding philosophy. If you needed office supplies, Allah will provide. Or, eventually, you made a trip to Score, downtown Dakar's equivalent to Target.

Though full of muus, or cleverness, she carried out her responsibilities with what one might perceive as a touch less efficiency than an American admin. She approached problems and requests in her own sweet time, ruled by a seemingly random hierarchy of priority. One afternoon, a stack of no more than five papers rested on her desk. “Je suis fatigue a les papiers!” she sighed at random, vexed as we all were by the sheaves of development world paperwork. “Je suis fatigue!” was her catchphrase, usually accompanied by a dramatic handsweep across her stately brow.

Yet things always did get done in the end. For example, one day a new stove appeared in the downstairs kitchen – never mind that we’d been operating quite well with the propane tank and never mind the apparent lack of gas hookup in the building. No problem there – the stove soon was hooked up to the propane tank and functioned quite well.

The week after New Year’s, Fatou was mysteriously absent from the office. Was she sick? On holiday? Neither, Madame explained. Fatou was at a Linux workshop.

(* "Nom-de-blog" used for privacy purposes)

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