Heather in Senegal

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

While I was at a party last week I spotted a woman with elaborately henna'd feet. I've been wanting to have this done to me for almost two years. I pointed her out to my sister, Assu, and told her I wanted her to paint me up. She offered to take me to a salon, but I was picturing something more intimate, so she agreed to do it. We set a date and I gave her money to buy the supplies.

When I got home last night Assu was cooking tea (a seemingly endless process of pouring it from one shot glass to another and back into the little kettle). On seeing me she passed off the job to another kid, and she and Nene, my older sister, sequestered themselves in Nene's room. After about fifteen minutes they sent out a little kid to summon me.
I took off my shoes outside the house, entered the front area, pushed aside the curtain, and found my sisters sitting on the floor slicing medical tape into thin strips on a metal platter. They beckoned me in, took one look at my feet, and sent me back out to wash them. Everyone picks on my foot-washing. When I came back they started taping me up.
Nene took my feet and ran full strips of tape along the sides like racing stripes. Then, thinking better of it, she went back and sliced the tape horizontally and pulled the pieces apart, giving me parallel stripes. While she did this, Assu took the thin strips off the metal platter and wrapped them around my fingertips. Nene used my free fingers to hold the roll of tape, and she cut off thin pieces and connected the stripes on my feet, making a series of squares.

After giving me stripes on my fingertips, toes, and the sides of my feet, they moved on to my palms. I had gathered by now that Nene and Assu were not terrribly experienced at this stuff. The tape was painstakingly but sloppily cut, and the placements were a bit haphazard. I caught the pair of them exchanging nervous looks when it came time to do my palms. They had no clear idea on what to do, and offered to write my boyfriend's name or mine. I passed on that, so they gave me squiggles and Xes.
The taping process to a long long time, and we were all yawning by the time they finished. Happily, the smearing process went quickly and involved a bit of a foot massage, as Assu rubbed the henna paste into my skin. I thought we were nearly done when they started applying the henna, but there was still the wrapping. They cut strips from plastic bags and individually tied off each of my fingers and toes, and then put my hands and feet into bags. They told me to put on socks, but I couldn't manage with my coated and mittened hands, so Nene had to put the socks on me. Before I could get into bed I had to call Assu and ask her to take the band out of my hair. I slept poorly, dreaming the henna didn't take or that I ripped off the bags in my sleep and my sisters were disappointed in me.
In the morning the process surprised me by not being over. Assu helped me scrape the henna off my skin, reminding me to be careful not to remove the tape. People had been telling me the henna would color my skin black, and they were excited about how good that would look on white skin, so I was pretty surprised to find myself bright orange. When we finally had all the henna off, Assu smeared a mixture that looked like water and large salt crystals all over my hands and feet. I have heard that sometimes this process involves rat poison. Already committed, I chose not to ask what was in the mix. I kept this on until it dried, and then Nene gave me permission to take off the tape and wash my skin.
I am still pretty orange, but the tops of my fingers and toes are black. All day long people have been complimenting me. Family friends, strangers on the street, they all seem surprised and delighted to see me henna'd. I get the impression it is taken as a sign of my fondness for the culture. I'll wave at people, and I know they can't see the design, only the color, but they'll enthusiastically tell me how pretty it looks.


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