Today’s guest in the ‘Celebrate A Sister‘ series is a beloved sistren of mine. We’ve shared the stage as part of a dance group in Barbados, lived in the same countryside parish for years, and had many deep conversations and creative collaborations. Through Rachelle’s gift for writing and photography she ushers us along her sojourn in Africa and shares on “Family and Community Through The Eyes Of A Traveler.”
“If you’re not living good
You gotta travel wide,
You gotta travel wide”
Bob Marley – Soul Rebel
GUEST POST by: Rachelle J. Gray
Three years ago I made my first trip to the Motherland. I sold my car, gave up my apartment, took my son out of secondary school, and headed east, across the Atlantic Ocean. I did not know what to expect. What I did know is that I had taken my event coordination skills and organized a trip to Senegal, the 35th largest country on the African continent.
The contrasts were stark. I was coming from Barbados — a tiny island in the southeastern Caribbean that required our local weather reporters to circle its location on their maps for viewers to see exactly where it was — and headed to Senegal, a country of about 15 million people that required no circling for identification.
The places that I had booked for us to stay at were unknown, except for the photos and descriptions that were a part of their Airbnb listings. On top of that Wolof and French are the currencies of communication and are recognized across all ethnicities, but at the time I spoke only English. This was going to be an adventure.
Our first months in Senegal were spent in the south of the country, in a region known as the Casamance. I had never even heard of the Casamance until a few months before the trip. For me, Senegal consisted of its cosmopolitan capital Dakar, Saint Louis the former capital, and the spiritual city of Touba. I wanted to stay in a space that allowed us to immerse ourselves in the culture of the land but wasn’t too urban or touristy. Eventually the Casamance landed on my radar.
As a traveler I’ve noticed a growing trend of people declaring that they are flying solo on their adventures. They’re out in the world and doing it alone. To each his own. For me having a travel buddy, who in this case was my then 13 year old son Indica, just made the experience that much richer.
There is truth in the saying the more the merrier and something about having that person who in real-time is having that experience with you is priceless. But as a parent it went deeper than that. It was also about watching my youth find and define himself in the light of this unique experience. Alone or accompanied keeping family and friends back home in the know was a must. They are the ones you are tethered to when you decide to travel wide. They ensure that like a kite, even though you are out there flying high, blowing in the wind — the wind doesn’t blow you away.
The art of Teranga
It took us fifteen hours of flying, three countries, an overnight ferry, followed by an one-hour drive into the interior to finally arrive in the village of Diakene Ouolof, home to about 80 households and roughly 500km south of Dakar. Unlike the north of Senegal, which is closer to the Sahara desert with a biodiversity that hints at its proximity, the Casamance is verdant, with a huge river and extensive network of mangroves and dense forests that define it.
Senegalese believe in Teranga. It’s their version of hospitality that basically treats a stranger like a friend. Turn up at a restaurant and folks who just got served and are about to eat will invite you over as if they were expecting you to come by. Take your fabric to the tailor, he might just invite you to feel free to spend a week at his house if you feel like it. Just met a lovely family at the airport and they think that you are cool, next thing you know you are invited to the wedding they are going to this weekend. All actual events that have happened either to me firsthand or to other travelers I met along the way. In Senegal it is hard to feel alone because once a stranger is spotted the default setting is to invite and include. Teranga, a generosity of spirit defined by the art of inclusion.
Coming from the West where being independent is a badge of honor, pointing my social compass in a different direction led me to reassess the overall direction my life was heading in.
There is something about eating together, every day, lunch and dinner with your household, that creates a certain bond especially when you are all eating out of the same bowl, at the same time.
I’m convinced that there is something special in the way black folks greet one another on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. When you are loved it pours out like an anointing of the soul, the exuberance of the exchange. Here the greetings go beyond a head nod and a wave. It’s a production that includes: How are you? How is your morning? Did you sleep well? How is your house? Where is your son? So good to see you. Have a good day. And that’s just the exchange with one person.
Telling folks where you are going or have been even though you are an adult and they are the random neighbor from down the street, is also a thing. Soon you realize that independence blooms within the boundaries of community. That you don’t drink attaya (tea) alone, it’s a together activity. Attending to the market garden, doing chores, lounging by the evening fire, even watching TV, we are doing it together.
When I left Barbados I was burnt out. I gifted my camera equipment to an upcoming photographer and kept a camera, one lens, and a laptop for myself. I was exhausted from the feeling of trying to do, and having to do so much on my own, whether it was personal or professional aspirations. For fifteen of my adult years, I called the birth country of my mother home. During that time I founded a media company, ran a photography studio, and birthed a child. I was married and then divorced. My company was in its 13th year of operation and my interest in leading it into the future had waned. I wanted to change professions, liberate myself from behind the camera, and pursue becoming a writer. I needed a change. And I knew that what I was looking for was a plane ride away, but to where. My son felt it too. I recall being stumped when he asked me if there was somewhere in the world that I could go where would it be?
As much as it stumped me, that question cracked open a seed of possibility. It made me search myself, only to arrive at the memory of an experience, with a Senegalese dance instructor that was substituting for a class that I was taking. It was from my New York City days when I would head to Harlem after work to take African dance classes, even though I lived in Brooklyn. He and I had never met before, but after class, he asked if I wanted to get something to eat and I agreed. I had never eaten Senegalese food and had no clue what it consisted of. On top of that, I didn’t even know this guy.
We ate at a nearby restaurant called Africa. I still remember drinking sorrel, which Senegalese call bissap, and the pleasant surprise of tasting ginger in the mix. I never forget falling in love with Yassa Poisson, trying my hardest to secretly figure out what was in the sautéed onions that made them so good, and feeling like a lottery winner as I dug into the oversized fried fish that laid on a bed of fragrant white rice.
My first thought at first bite was about Europe and how they must have never tasted Senegalese food, for if they did, they would be less boastful about their cuisine. I ate at Africa, and a few other Senegalese restaurants and with his family for celebrations like Eid. I met more of his friends and he met mine, and we remained friends until I left New York for Barbados. I did not know that what he did was called Teranga. I was not sure if I would find the hospitality that he exhibited at the end of my plane ride, but I found an answer to my son’s question, and Senegal was on the other end of that answer.
Experiences with family and community can make or break the spirit. When the encounter is bad, one might crawl away deeply wounded and might even carry that scar for a lifetime. When it is good, supportive, generous, and selfless, the buoyancy from that elevated feeling can give you the lift needed to go higher than you have ever been. Inside each of us is a voice guiding us to where we need to be to mend, to learn, to be inspired. In this case I needed to be in a space where the energy was high and hearts were open. This is not to say that in the land of Teranga that I have not met contrary people or had to navigate my way out of tough situations. No, this is to say that those experiences are like dots on a map that have to be circled for them to have relevance in light of all that is going on.
The kindness that was shown to me decades ago, spurred an adventure to a country that demonstrated how it was done. The collective generosity I encountered gave me life and in turn caused me to look at my relationships through a different lens.
Family and community aren’t there solely to serve you; they must be served as well. These relationships extend beyond the good times. There will be challenging moments that require duty to be part of the act of generosity. If one can be caring to a stranger, and as a stranger, be openly accepting of such, how does one interact with the people you do know? I have since left the village for the city experience. My family and community now include people that I have met and continue to meet during my travels. Included are also those from my past with whom I’ve rekindled relationships.
My world expanded because my heart expanded. Coming to Senegal taught me the importance of that.
Rachelle J. Gray is a Barbadian-American writer and founder of LadyGray Publishing, a creative outlet manifesting social change through independent literature. A mother of one and an auntie to many, living and working between the USA, Barbados, and Senegal — Kingstown Burning is her debut novel.