Heather in Senegal

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I finally danced with the Baye Falls! They are a religious sect, and they are hated because publically they do nothing but hastle people for money, wail songs, bang drums, and smoke pot. In Kolda the visible members are all males in their early twenties. People here claim to hate them, and when I first hung out with the Baye Falls months ago my family heard about it before I got home, and everyone took turns yelling at me, promising the guys would slit my throat, rob me, rape me, kill me, and sell me into slavery.
The Baye Falls come to Kolda from Dakar. When they are in Kolda they camp at a house just across the path from my compound. It used to drive me crazy. I would hear them drumming and singing late into the night, and I would imagine how much fun it would be to join them. Up until recently I was too afraid of public opinion to cross into their yard. Finally last week, summoned out by the firey drumming, I walked close enough to see through the huts to the Baye Falls. Instead of finding men engaged in colorful debauchery as promised by my family, I saw little girls dancng. While I was craning to see the girls, a friend of mine walked past. Seeing me, she told me she was heading to the Baye Falls. I ran back to lock my hut, and we walked to the music together. I was shocked to realize I knew most of the people there. I am discovering how anti-social my family is.
The older women and young girls were all dressed up in brightly colored fancy fabrics and loose scarves that flowed around them. The younger ones were dancing. Simple motions - spinning slowly, snapping fingers in the air. The older women were lounging on a plastic mat where they were playing with one another's hair and drinking coffee brought to them by the Baye Falls. They looked so pretty and leisurely that they made me think of genies lazing about in their lamps or fairies relaxing in their garden.
Girls who recognized me instantly pulled me into the dancing and showed me how to move my arms in their snapping dance. I squated to dance with Halimatou, a four year old girl who I think has Downs Syndrome. We twirled together and chased each other, taking turns pretending to be a monster, and the women on the mat rolled with laughter. The Baye Fall men stood nearby in a circle beside the two drummers. The men were bursting with energy. They swayed and hopped in place while chanting, singing, and even screaming their song about Allah.
When the girls saw that I kept looking at the men they pushed me towards them. I was afraid of how a female, let alone a white one, would be received, so I pulled Mama, one of the little girls, along with me. The men reacted to our entry only by making a bit of space for us in their circle. I didn't recognize the words of the song, so I belted out words of gibberish instead. Sometimes we sang all together, sometimes in call and response. We all sang or hollered with our heads thrown back and our eyes on the sky. At one point Halimatou's mother found Halimatou wandering between the Baye Fall's legs, and she brought her to me and told her to stay by me. I was honored to be chosen as a trusted person from all these people who Halimatou's mother has known much of her life.
Kumba, a six year old girl who has screamed and cried at the sight of me ever since I came here, finally overcame her fears. She began by dancing near me, and soon was holding my hand. When I left the men to sit with the women she sat on me and got her kicks running her fingers over my arms and legs, fascinated by my whiteness. The women on the mat teased me about becoming a Baye Fall, but it was with a kindness and affection. Dancing and singing out was invigorating, and sitting with the women, chatting in Pulaar, feeling embraced by their smiles and quite literally by many of their children, was heart warming.
The second time I danced with the Baye Falls many more people were there. Instead of ten men, there were about twenty, and the singing and dancing was even more energetic than the first time. One Baye Fall was in a wheel chair, and he bounced and rocked the chair so vigourously as he sang that I thought he'd knock it over. Like the first time, I danced with the women and then brought a few girls over to dance and sing with the men. This time we marched in a small circle around the drummers. A moment after I started marching, one of the men said something to the young girl nearest me, and she ran off, returning a moment later with a sheer silky scarf. She tied it over my head; all the females in attendance had thier heads similarly covered.
A few of the men were drunk. One tried to embrace me, and for an instant I did not recognize the smell and just thought he was sick. I love the fact that Senegal is a Muslim country, and the instances of roudy drunk men are few and far between.
Shortly after the drunk man grabbed me, another man grabbed my wrist. I jerked back, but he smiled soborly at me, and Mama pushed me to go with him. I clamped my hand onto her wrist, and she led me after him into a dark room. Here I discovered why this night was so much more festive than the first: the Baye Fall's religious leader was visiting. He was sitting in the small, dark, cement room with an electric fan pointed right at him and a man in the corner behind him beating himself with a club. We were not aloud to simply walk into the room, but had to get down on all fours like cats. The leader grasped my hand and spoke to my guide in French, and he translated to Pulaar. The leader told me how happy he was to see me here, and how much he would like to educate me about the Baye Falls. While he was speaking two more men entered the room. They were crawling with their bodies almost flat to the floor. The leader asked my name and, still holding my hand, stared at me silently with grave intent. When he spoke again it was to ask if I had a husband and whether he could get my number. It sounded so much like a punch line that I had to stiffle a laugh. He let me go after I appologetically told him that I am married and have no phone.
After my visit with the leader, everyone in the compound looked at me with admiration and envy. I returned to the circle and we danced and wailed our songs to the sky late into the night.


At 2:29 PM, Blogger David said...

WOW!! that's amazing heather...im glad you finally got that visceral experience you had been dreaming of...may there be many more!


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