Heather in Senegal

Monday, April 09, 2007

A good friend of mine in the US has breast cancer. She found the lump herself, and because of early detection the cancer will be much more easily and affectively treated than if it had been found later. Do self breast exams!

I wanted to do something to help, so I went to Jimmy Hendrix, my bamboo furniture maker. He once shut his shop and took me into the bush to find cow patties for my garden, and he has been a wealth of information on where to find things within town. I asked Jimmy if he knew where I might have lekki made. Lekki, also known as gris-gris, means medicine, but in this case is more like a good luck charm. All babies wear lekki around their waists, and many adults wear it tied tight on their upper arms. It is usually either a black rope or a rope of coiled leather with a triangle of leather hanging off, inside of which is a page with a blessing written on it.

Jimmy shut his shop and took me walking a few blocks to Bodgy's house. Bodgy is a wrinkled, hunched old man with a rough voice. He received us in his bedroom which is strewn with candles, plates of puddles of wax from old candles, piles of paper with Arabic writings, scraps of leather, and a few bunches of mint leaves. Jimmy told Bodgy what I wanted. Bodgy looked at me, confused, and said, "But they have really good medicine in the US." I was afraid he would be offended when I told him I wanted it to be more of a souvenir, or perhaps as a suppliment to her other medicines. But he seemed pleased that I wanted to send to the US a piece of what I'm seeing in Senegal.

Bodgy asked a lot about my friend's symptoms, and then, after a moment's consideration, told me that tomorrow, Thursday, would be a good day to write the lekki. As Jimmy and I were getting up to leave, Bodgy told us that because Jimmy (known to locals as Usmaan) said that I am a very good friend of his, he would not demand the "toubob price," but would instead let me name my price. I will always be a toubob, but in little ways I am treated like a local, non-tourist, toubob.

I returned the next day by myself and had to wait outside for about twenty minutes while Bodgy finished lekki for a young man. When it was my turn Bodgy and I sat on his floor and a child brought us tea. After we finished drinking and the child had returned for the cups, Bodgy took out a fresh sheet of paper and very slowly wrote about five lines of Arabic. Below this he made a grid with nine squares in it, and he filled this with Arabic writing and some marks that looked like musical notation. Before filling in the middle square he asked for my friend's name. Once the writing was completed, Bodgy carefully rubbed the page over and under a few other sheets that were covered in Arabic. Next, he folded the page into a series of triangles until it was a small, tight triangle that could not be bent any further. He blew on it or whispered to it and then, very tenderly, passed it to me.

After lekki is written, it must be wrapped in leather. (I never expected to be seeking out a leatherworker, just as I never pictured myself harvesting cow bones.) I have seen leather workers in town. They have very casual set-ups, often nothing more than a bench surrounded by bits of leatherr. I was walking into town to find one of these men when I caught up with Mya, a woman from my neighborhood. She was also going to have lekki wrapped, so she brought me to her guy. He works out of the front of a half built brick house. I guess the owners ran out of money before completing it. I sat with his other clients on an old wooden board that is balanced across a few large rocks, hidden from the street and the sun by a patchwork curtain nailed into the bricks. The setup looks so rough that in passing I had assumed a homeless person's sleeping place.

I watched the leatherworker finish a waist band with lekki on it, and then I gave him my triangle, which he handled as if it was a precious ruby. He stretched and wound leather around the paper, attached it to a black rope, and created a clasp. His motions were slow and careful, and he unwound and rewrapped long sections of leather before he was satisfied. I wore the lekki out of his shop and for the rest of the day, and a lot of people on the street gave me nods or even shouts of approval for my distinctly African armband.


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