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Madame Diawara

Baba Badji

Chapter Eleven : Aunty Salymata

After years, I finally found the courage to go visit aunt Salymatafa Sané. In her home in Fatick. Aunt Saly lives in Fatick, and I was proud of her. I was proud of her decision to go live in Fatick where she made her home. Fatick is a town in Senegal. A city be-seated in the borders. In borders. A city seated in borders. Fatick rests in the middle of other cities in Senegal: Mbour, Kaolack, Bambey, Thiés, Diourbel and Louga. All these cities are historic cities. I was told. I still don’t know why Aunt Saly wanted to settle in Fatick. She left the south to go to the north. I recall Aunt Saly talking about merchants and their lives, merchants and their businesses, merchants and their wives, merchants and their troubles, secrets lives, other secrets, wives. I recall my aunt Saly telling me about how agriculture, fishing, and farming was precious in Fatick. I suspect dirt and wind, the land and its wealth. I suspect why the south did not have this kind of dirt, soil, mud and wealth. What was it that these essential resources of the people in Fatick did not thrive in the south. I recall Aunt Saly telling me, too. There was lots of sightseeing. Aunt Saly said, foreigners came to Fatick for spectacles. Foreigners came for. The seashores. And the hot heat. The mud. The dirt. The wind. Food. People. Culture. Foreigners came. To see the historic scenes. Aunt Saly said. That there were foreigners settling in. That foreigners owned all the big employments in Fatick. Lebanese. Nigerian. And other Africans, too. Owned the commerce in this rich city of Senegal. There were businesses owned by some French people.

Aunt Saly was not very liked by her sisters and her brothers in our family. I was told. For years, I was baffled as to why my other aunts and other uncles did not like aunt Saly. At first, I thought because they were jealous. Of aunt Saly’s humble and brave approach to life. Her freedom. Of her four beautiful children. Her freedom from the family. I was shocked by all that was told about her. I did not remember everything. But I recall talks about her skin. Lightening her skin. Lessening darkness of her skin. Lifting grace from her dark skin. Reducing darkness from her skin. Because aunt Saly was too dark. She thought she was too ugly. I was sad and hurt. When I was told. My beautiful Black aunt. That my beautiful Black aunt wanted whiteness to own her skin. Her dark and graceful skin. The neatness of her Black skin capture by whiteness. I thought she did not know. She failed to see what whiteness was doing to us. And especially to her. I was hurt that she wanted whiteness to retain her skin. Whiteness to save her skin. Whiteness to own her skin. Whiteness to modify her skin. Whiteness to adjust her Black skin. And she thought she was not beautiful. When I first met aunty Saly. From hugging her when I first saw her. I sensed aunt Saly’s warmth. I felt her power. I felt protected.I felt her ghosts. I deeply felt quiet ghosts in her. Aunt Saly was more complicated than grandma Nanafall thought. Everything Nanafall told me was a little wrong. But complex because it was a family thing. I was told Nanafall and Aunt Saly fought a lot. She was the only one that challenged Nanafall. I was told Aunt Saly was the one who fought Nanafall. I was told Nanafall never visit aunt Saly in Fatick. I was told Nanafall never wanted to visit her daughter. I recall that I was told Nanafall said she regret not attending her daughter’s wedding. I was told it was the only wedding grandma Nanafall did not attend. I was hurt and wretched. Down. Low. Disappointed. Blue. Because it was the first thing aunt Saly complained to me. About. I don’t recall being so hurt by my grandma’s conduct. Grandma Nanafall refusing to show love. Grandma Nanafall refusing to tend aunt Saly. Nanafall refusing to exhibit her love. To one of her daughters. Aunt Saly? I thought it was unfair. I taught it was unjust. But I was afraid to judge my grandmother.

In aunt Saly’s home there was no lack of love and discipline. Her four girls were disciplined. Her daughters were safe in Fatick. The ways she communicated with her daughters. I sensed how safe her daughters were. I sensed how aunt Saly stretched her daughters as possible as she could. I was touched. I was moved by how aunt Saly pushed her daughters, so they not only fly. She stretched her daughters so they will be ready for all that rest ahead. So, her daughters’ world unfolds in harmony. So, her daughters may cross any bridge without fear. So, her daughters will be ready for the ghosts, owls, and hyaenas’ bones. So, her daughters may fly. So, her daughters may fly like owls of Senegal. So, her daughters may fly & transcend.

In Fatick, I stayed with aunt Saly for about two weeks. She has changed so much from the pictures I saw. I recall her dark skin being so dark. That it was so difficult to depict its beauty. I recall how I had to measure my words. To describe her weight. Her age. Her defined, long Black hair. Her white teeth. Her big Black eyes. Her big lips and her buoyant smile. The rims of her jaws. Her symbols of beauty. Her beauty. Her long necklines. Her four children and their volcanic awareness. I would so unceremoniously. Employ words that described her beauty instead later on. And I was relaxed with the neatness of her darkness. Gracefulness of her darkness. Preciseness of her darkness. Deftness of her darkness. Elegance of her darkness. Delicacy of her darkness. Graciousness of her darkness. Cleanliness of her darkness. And above all, the strength and rigor of her darkness. But it seemed like. From her report, it sounded like she was bothered. By the neat grace of her darkness or the quiet ghosts of her Black body or both. She was bothered by something. Something underneath her darkness. I recall when she showed me marks on her long back. I recall her showing me marks on her legs, too. Marks that transferred pain and suffering. Of her skin. I recall the first conversations she and I had were tearful. The horrible ideas. About grandma Nanafall, the family and what strangers associated with her skin. Her body or both. I recall her tears. When she said. Products she used to lighten her Black skin. Came from Europe. The same products. Deadly products that brutalized her skin. Products that dehumanized her skin. Assaulted her skin. Abused her skin. Battered her skin. Desensitized her skin. The horrifying riddles were that. These products were sold to Aunt Saly by men. Bastards sold expired products to my aunt Saly. Senegalese men said she could assuage her Black skin. And turn it into a lighter skin. So, these men thought my aunt could possibly turn white. By simply whitening her dark skin. It was not that simple. I recall my aunt tearfully telling me. It was not that simple, she said, as she wept. It was not that simple. I recall aunt Saly telling me. How she needed to rediscover her body wholly. For the rest of life. What is left of her life she said? She needed to restudy a body. Her body completely. Adapting to her body. When she stopped crying, I used my words carefully. To offer comfort and not suggest anything. I did not impose my thoughts on her. Or explain anything. It was right after the dusk prayers.

Aunt Saly’s husband had gone to survey university entrance exams in another town. It was Mbour or Thiés, I don’t recall. Which aunt Saly suggested were not good that year. Because of endless walkouts from both teachers and students. There were complains the government was not paying the teachers. The worst of it. Was during the month of Ramadan. But. Aunt Saly’s four girls weren’t around on that chill and dusty dusk. Though a nice breeze came later, her daughters were studying in the verandah. Aunt Saly said gently. In that exact moment. Aunt Saly’s home is floodlit with cordiality. Every object in that home. Is bounded with warmth. Above the verandah, I saw muzzled ghosts. Slung ghosts. They are bordered with warmth, too. I offered to make Ataya to aunt Saly. She said, she did not drink anyone’s Ataya, but her husband. I suggested that it was my last night in Fatick. We agreed she did not want too much sugar in her Ataya. That she wanted lots of mint in her Ataya. That she was getting too sleepy. Tired. She had to get up early the next day to go the market. So she may catch the fresh products she was going to buy and sell again. She accentuated in Wolof. That she could only stay up. For the second round of my Ataya. Because she was tired. I recall Aunt Saly shunning a question that questions. The slung ghosts above her verandah. But I poked aunt Saly again for more stories. This time about grandma Nanafall and grandpa Guelowar. I made the Ataya so strong. Ayata so strong so aunt Saly would not sleep. I wanted the true about grandma Nanafall. I wanted the true about the family. I wanted no more secrets. I wanted the true about the death of my mother. I wanted the true about how my mother died.

Like Nanafall, aunt Saly did not like to be asked. Questions about the ghosts. She did not like to be asked questions about the hyaenas’ bones. And she did not like to be asked questions about uncle Omar Iddrissa’s tobacco pipe. She did not want any questions about the Koranic teacher. I suspected that she did not trust my visit. She wondered why I stayed in America for so long. Without calling. Without news. She said people told her. I worked for America. I did not know what she met by her claim. I recall her thinking of me being dead in America. For aunt Saly, no news is not good. In fact, for Aunt Saly, no news means playing dead. Gone ghosted. Numb. Dying and dead. She did not trust anyone in the family. There were rumors about me. I was told. I remember how tearful she was. When she explained her feelings. Of abandonment. Of being isolated by her own family. Kicked out of her own home. Kicked of her own home by her father. I recall dry tears oozing from Aunt Saly’s beautiful Black face. As she continued telling me. Horrifying stories. Of what my grandfather Guelowar did to her. Of being displaced by her own sisters. Of being expelled by her brothers. Of being strengthened in mud by her own mother. (Nanafall never agreed to doing this awful thing). I recall Nanafall saying how she was not able to stop my grandfather. But aunt Saly unveiled that when grandpa told her. To leave her own home. Nanafall mournfully said, she was not able to stop Grandpa Guelowar. From kicking aunt Saly out of the home. I was told by another aunt that aunt Saly confronted both grandpa Guelowar and grandma Nanafall. I was told aunt Saly was the first one to accidently have a baby. I was told aunt Saly did not like school. I was told she was the one who fought my uncles. I was told she did not know the father of her first two babies. I was told before she was married aunt Saly had two babies. She did not know their fathers. Aunt Saly had two baby girls before she was married. In full, aunt Saly now has six baby girls. They have all been purer, cleaner, and prouder. She pressed her girls, so they do not do the mistakes she did. Aunt Saly was marked with hot water by grandpa Guelowar. She was scorched with burning wood by grandpa Guelowar. The second time she had a baby. Aunt Saly humbly confess to grandpa Guelowar. That it was an accident. That it was a military man. That it was a Wolof from the North. That it was a Modo-modo from the North. That it was a Diola from the South. That it was a legendary Herdsman. That it was a wrestler. That it was a soccer player. That it was a policeman. That it was the banana-man. That it was the notorious onion-man. That it was the mango-man. That it was the Milkman. That it was the butcher. That it was watchman. That it was the one-eyed taxi driver. The celebrated bricklayer. That it was a legendary trucker. That it was the powerful Koranic teacher’s son. That it was papaya-man. That it was the man who fed hyenas. The guardian of the hyena’s bones. That it was the Keeper of the Shrine. That was when Guelowar draw the scorching wood from the fire. I was told. The scorching wood stroked aunt Saly’s back. Grandpa Guelowar’s scorching wood jammed in aunt Saly’s ribcage. I was told grandma Nanafall was so ashamed when aunt Saly. Had a second child with no father. That grandpa Guelowar did not attend Ramadan’s prayers at the mosque. Guelowar was ashamed of his stubborn daughter’s second pregnancy. Grandpa was a difficult man. He worried too much about his pride. And how he was seen by elders in the mosque and underneath the baobab.

Beyond her intimacy and kindness. She hates politics. She thought Senegal was a so-called democratic nation, but only if people knew about these corrupted politicians and their secret lives. I was suspicious of her volcanic critique of politics. But I was afraid to ask how she knew all these dirty secrets about politicians in Senegal. Politics in Senegal. She smiled and then laughed, and then laughed again harder. Then she said, “the king has secrets, the forest has secrets, river has secrets, and even she has secrets.” Tightening her long colorful skirt that she so-recalled buying in Mali, my aunt said, “even the president has secrets.” Aunt Saly taught me so much in her home. During my two weeks stay with her. Aunt Saly taught tenderness. She taught me about restrained ghosts above the mango tree. In grandma Nanafall’s home. She taught me about Nanafall failed body. She taught me about vanished memories. And the treasured memories. The best lesson Aunt Saly taught me. Was how to cope with anonymous hurt. Using unspecified hurt to survive. Controlling nameless hurt. Thanks to my aunt, I have absorbed so much. Surviving with ordinary hurt.Working with mysterious pain to endure. Surviving with unfamiliar ache. Treating undisclosed agony to survive. About Nanafall’s secrets. About her own family’s secret. About her beloved husband. Among which, the broken promises. Broken first weddings. Broken blessings. Broken secrets, among which hyaenas’ bones. Broken family rituals. Broken secrets about the ghosts. Ghosts who woke the ghosts in the town’ shrines. The dead who returned to bath in the shrines. I had no idea that there were ghosts in the family. Above all, aunt Saly taught me. About lies Uncle Omar Iddrisssa imagined. Lies my uncle Omar Iddrissa talked about his tobacco pipe. Lies uncle Omar Iddrissa talked about my mother’s coffin. I recall aunt Saly remarking later on that day. It was sunny, hot and rainy. I recall my aunt Saly saying how. Odd it was for the family secrets to be broken. I was amazed by aunt Saly’s sources. I wondered why aunt Saly was the one who also knew everything. But I also doubted that aunt Saly knew everything. I did not trust that she knew everything. I doubted she knew everything. About my mother. About my mother’s death.

My particular fear was that. None of grandma Nanafall and grandpa Guelowar’s daughters and sons. Knew everything about Nanafall or Guelowar. My aunts and uncles cannot even tell me my grandparents’ age. None of them knew all about the family. I was also shocked by how aunt Saly failed to notice my fear. My fear of knowing everything about Nanafall and grandpa Guelowar. My fear of knowing how my mother died. My fear of knowing when my mother died. The last hours and the last gasp of my mother. How she looked when she died. Was she beautiful? Did she die a beautiful death? Did she die a Black death? In which there was no doctor to care for her. What she wore? Did her family force a black or white garment on her? Was she wearing a wedding ring? Were her nails done with her favor color? Were her nails painted Black? What kind of flowers she seized in her coffin? Was she shaved properly? What did the body washers tell grandma Nanafall, and grandpa Guelowar? Before the burial. After the burial. What did the imam and the preacher tell the family? Why my mother tied hyaena’ bones in her long Black skirt? Placed neatly under her wooden bed. When she knew she was dying?

Baba Badji is a Senegalese/American poet, translator, and a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of French and Department English at Rutgers University Badji holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Washington University and an MFA from Columbia University. Besides English and French, he is fluent in Wolof, Mending, and Diola, and he calls on these languages in his writing. Badji’s first full-length poetry manuscript, Ghost Letters, was longlisted for the 2021 National Book Awards. Badji’s Ghost Letters volume II is forthcoming. This story is from his novel Madame Diawara, that is in progress.

The photo above is from the acclaimed 2019 film Atlantics by Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop.

Wassulu Don :: Oumou Sangare

Draman ::: Wasas Diop

Thione Seck ::: Bamba

Bena Bena (acoustic) ::: Oumou Sangare

So La La ::: Wasis Diop

Ndaxami ::: Ismael Lo

Saa Magni ::: Oumou Sangare

Beauty ::: Youssou N’dour & Ryu Sakamoto

Sabou Dogone ::: Oumou Sangare