Heather in Senegal

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

After the final rains last fall, the Casamance River, which cuts across Kolda, rapidly went down. In the first rainless week it looked as though a dam somewhere downstream had been unblocked. Trees that had spent the summer standing in two feet of water were suddenly on land. The poles that supported the ramshackle walking bridge, the body of which washed away over the summer, became visible again. A month after the rains stopped the river no longer flowed visibly. On a windless day trees and clouds were reflected flawlessly.

The rains here, especially the first few, are much celebrated. Kids and Peace Corps volunteers dance in the street. Everything smells better. The sandy roads become bikeable again. The rains bring mangos, relief from the heat, thrilling thunder, stunning lightening shows, a glowing verdant landscape, mangos, gardening and farming opportunities, and the frequent occasion of being stuck indoors and forced to cozy up with a good book. And something about the rains just feels good. Once the season gets underway the rains come with dramatic, apocolyptic force. My first summer here the winds and pounding rain made me fear for my hut. It's exhilerating to bike through blankets of pouring rain or to wade calf deep down a muddy market road. Last summer I had a nice, "holy cow how did this get to be my life," moment one night while biking home in a thunder storm. After one especially loud crash the electricity went out. From then on I could only see the path during bursts of lightening. In the absence of lightening I was left in pitch black darkness. I sped as fast as I could during the moments of visibility, trying to sight any rocks, parked cars, or deep muddy sand traps on the path ahead, and then I pedaled slowly and hopefully during the brief dark spells. I made it home feeling triumphant.

I have delighted in the rains, and both years here I eagerly watched the river as a measure. Because it rains to the east before it hits Kolda, the river swells slightly before our rains begin. I remember stopping my bike on the bridge in town to gaze down at the dry river bed, then the muddy river bed, then the gorgeous sight of water forming a continuous line crossing under the bridge, and finally the day when it first actively flowed west. I watched the river rise, covering the garbage, the riverside gardens, my reading spot under my chosen tree, and eventually the footbridge. It was reminiscent of the thrill of watching snow accumulate.

Signs of our distance now from the last rains abound. The ground is littered with dead leaves, the cows, who thrive on rainfed growth, are showing their rib bones, the sandy roads are getting impassible on bike, kids playing soccer create field-wide auras of kicked-up dust visible and smellable from far off, we had to lengthen the well's rope to make the bucket reach the sinking water, and every day is hotter than the last. (I got a kick out of a new volunteer asking, "Is this as hot as it gets?" We're just getting started.) And, most of all, the river is very low now. At its lowest point it's a muddy garbage dump. There's a thin coating of green grass, the only grass in town, on either side of the river showing how much it has recently sunk. I have barely a month left in Kolda, and every day now I can see the water line changing and the river growing more narrow.

I have such mixed feelings about leaving Senegal. Simply, it's really really strange to know I'm going soon. Often I can forget about it, or at least quiet the idea, but the sight of the dried up river, which I won't be here to see refill, is like a kitchen timer that has nearly ticked down to zero, and it always brings me back to the fact of my imminent departure, which I'm at a loss of how to deal with.


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