A Friendship Thrives, With a Sack of Rice

First and last: The author with his friend Biram N'Diaye, whose village has had only one Peace Corps volunteer.
First and last: The author with his friend Biram N'Diaye, whose village has had only one Peace Corps volunteer. (2007 Photo From Nathaniel Spiller)
By Nathaniel Spiller
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Night falls quickly in Africa. Under a half-moon and partly cloudy sky, a single kerosene lantern silhouetted the contestants against the blackened backdrop. A boom box hooked up to a car battery played traditional Serer music, accompanied by drummers on plastic barrels. Thanks to word of mouth, and probably a few of the cellphones that are increasingly common in the bush, the Keur Waly N'Diaye wrestling tournament was about to begin in earnest.

On a day's notice, several hundred people and maybe two dozen wrestlers from surrounding villages had arrived on foot or by cart and assembled in the open area between the hut-size mosque and general store. Bedecked with amulets and the occasional body paint, the young male hopefuls, all in their late teens or 20s, flexed and preened in skimpy loincloths. Meanwhile, the gathering crowd -- women wearing colorful batiks and men in T-shirts and jeans -- formed the three-deep perimeter of this impromptu arena.

Before the first bout, my son Dan and I had taken our spots in coveted ringside seats. For the next three hours, we would sit transfixed, honored guests at a sporting event that could have taken place two centuries ago.

All because of the $25 I spent on a 50-kilo bag of rice -- the prize for the eventual champion.

A Father-Son Road Trip

For some time I dreamed of Senegal, and a return to the Peace Corps village I left in 1972. Ever since, I have kept up with the family who took me in when I was 21. In particular, I have kept up a correspondence with Biram N'Diaye, the village chief's son -- and now the village chief himself. Our special friendship began almost from the instant in 1970 when I was dropped off in Keur Waly N'Diaye, the tiny village that bears his father's name.

Like most volunteers, I had several motives for joining: a desire to serve, to be sure, but also a desire to interrupt my academic studies and defer entering the "real" world by living someplace I might never otherwise see. The one place I did not want to see was Vietnam. I had signed up for the Peace Corps already, but then I drew #4 in the draft lottery, which meant I might soon be called up to serve in the war. That was the extra push I needed.

I arrived alone after three months of language, technical and cultural training at the village, which comprised about 10 families eking out a meager living growing peanuts, then Senegal's primary cash crop. The families were extended and predominantly polygamous, and their separate compounds generally consisted of several huts organized around a central eating/sitting area and surrounded by a millet-stock fence. The more prosperous households -- a category that did not include Chief Waly -- lived in compounds that included a two-room cement-brick house with a metal roof. Yard space was shared with a variety of scrawny farm animals and a mangy dog or cat. There was no electricity or plumbing, not even outhouses.

It was an exceptionally small village for a Peace Corps posting, and my placement with the chief's family as the village's first and, to this day, only volunteer was unusually intimate. I naturally reached out to Biram, the chief's eldest son, to mediate between me and other villagers, some of whom were skeptical of my intentions and capabilities. It was a role in which he excelled. At the time, Biram was 30, married and a father of four. Unlike many Senegalese, he spoke no French; in fact, as with the rest of the Keur Waly villagers, his primary language was not Wolof -- Senegal's most common -- but Serer, a distinct tongue of his ethnic group and one that I never learned. A true peasant, he had no schooling and had never been out of the area; his one and only trip to the capital city of Dakar was to see me off when I was leaving.

In the years to come, I would return to Keur Waly several times, most recently in 1986 with my wife, nine months before Dan was born. But that was two children and more than 20 years ago. Meanwhile, Biram's family had grown to nine children and numerous grandchildren.

Now I wanted to go back, this time with Dan, then a 19-year-old college sophomore. Any father-son road trip would have been great at this juncture in our lives, but I knew that Senegal, and especially the village, would be special. Having studied African development in school, Dan wondered "whether the poverty would be too sad to bear," and what a country would be like where people earned less per year than he got in a month at a summer job. I wondered how it had changed.

Subsistence and More

Keur Waly N'Diaye is a four-hour drive from Dakar, if all goes well. To get there, we hired a taxi at Dakar's sprawling intercity taxi depot. The farther inland we got, the hotter and drier it was; the heavily populated areas gave way to scattered villages of mud-brick huts and thatched or corrugated iron roofs. It was late May, a month before the start of the rainy season, and long stretches of farmland were desiccated and fallow. Cows, sheep and goats along -- and sometimes on -- the road looked emaciated.

Past Kaolack, 150 miles from Dakar, road conditions worsened dramatically. Unlike the well-paved Dakar-Kaolack road, this major route to Gambia was pitted with endless axle-eating potholes and shocks-rattling bumps. It was here that, within sight of the line of trees that marked Keur Waly, our car broke down. Despite the oppressive heat, we contemplated walking the last kilometer or so, dragging our suitcases behind us. Within minutes, however, a full seven-passenger taxi pulled up and crammed us in for the short ride to the village -- no charge.

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