I had spent my entire adult life asking for permission to sit at Mama Africa’s feet. My first request was made when I was a 26-year old social worker and graduate student, fearfully submitting a Peace Corps application. I studied Wolof in the hope that I would be sent to Senegal. Like many African-Americans of my generation, I imagined myself as a direct descendent of Kunta Kinte’s people, who had originated from the region that was once called Senegambia. Instead of traveling to Senegal, I met and fell in love with Serigne. My Sufi brother N’Diaga was pleased: “You asked Allah for Africa. Allah sent Africa to you”.
Eleven years, two children, and two moves later, I dared to ask for permission again. We saved the $10,000 that was needed for airfare, food, gifts, and money to share with our relatives. It was decided that Serigne would travel ahead of his young family, and prepare us for his home. A week after his departure, we landed at the Dulles airport, dressed in matching orange boubous and bearing a 75-pound suitcase full of gifts. My five-year-old Atallah was struggling to anchor her small body, exhausted with a recurring bloody nose and seasonal allergies. I carried her in my arms to the ticket counter, anxiously awaiting our boarding passes. The expressionless Air France agent glanced at me, down at my ticket, and informed me that I had missed my plane. I struggled to hold my baby up, while containing the sudden mass in my stomach, which threatened to throw me to the ground.
“There must be some mistake. I have proof. Please give me a minute. You see my kids? You see all my stuff? My husband is waiting for us over there. I just need one more minute to fix this”
My plea was abruptly interrupted with, “If you pay $4,000 right now for the three of you, I can put you on this flight.”
Her glaring eyes and my sorrowful face spoke the truth—I did not have another dime to contribute towards this trip. I grabbed my daughter’s hands, and slowly walked back to the airport entrance.
“Sorry, daughter, try again. Make sure your babies are well the next time you try to see me. Yes, you are going to cry over this for years to come. But you will thank me in the end. It’s not your time. Now go home, and wait for your husband to come back to you.”
I wailed for two days. How could she betray me? Wasn’t I worthy? Why was I being denied this chance? What was the lesson in a social worker and a chef losing $10,000 in one afternoon? The pictures of my material and emotional losses raced through my mind—the silver gifts that I would not be able to share with my sisters-in-law, the tiny gold earrings that I was holding for my girls to present to all of their village cousins, and the cash that Serigne would give his brother for a new bathroom. The most consistent picture of returning home was accompanied by the scorching fire of shame in my belly from having to inform the entire world that I had failed.
In my grief, I refused to listen to the lessons that the Biggest Mama was telling me– the gifts were on their way, in the form of my own personal insight, patience, forgiveness, and trust.
The travel agent who booked my ticket was the brother-in-law of a dear friend. He promised to fix his error and return the 5,000 dollars that I had lost in airfare. I waited for six months for my check to arrive in the mail. The week after I filed a lawsuit against him, he died of a heart attack on a Dubai sidewalk. I could not carry my resentment on to his grieving wife. I dropped the charges, and returned to my own grief, allowing it to scorch my lungs for the next two years.
Another graduate degree, private school tuition, and two teenagers later, we saved up another 10 grand to try again. This time, I asked for guidance. Yes my daughter, you can come.
My external reasons for traveling to Senegal were apparent—the opportunity to introduce my children to their ancestry, a time to meet history, and a chance to deepen my understanding of myself and my purpose. What I dare not share with anyone was the deeper yearning of my heart—to finally have a mother-in-law.
After giving birth to my children, I was slightly jealous of any friend who had a relationship with their husband’s mother. My paternal grandmother Selena’s spirit was clouded by the over-consumption of spirits, leaving my mother and I without a model for that experience. She carried the dark green shadow of resentment towards my father for showing up with a dark-skinned girl and her infant son. While she struggled to lift that shadow towards the end of her life, she was never quite able to reach a deep connection with any of us. Sadly, we never knew her true self, beyond the darkness of her alcoholism and the self-imposed separation between her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
Serigne’s mother passed away the month we met. On her deathbed, she advised him to go back and get himself a wife, even if she was American. While he was sitting with his mother for their final goodbye, I was sitting in a Manhattan bar, sipping my last drink. A week later, Serigne would return home an orphan, and I would order a cranberry and seltzer. We often joked that Mama Maguette was in heaven, orchestrating my preparation for meeting, and loving, her son.
Throughout our marriage, I envisioned Mama Maguette, the mother-in-law who I would only meet in my dreams. There, she would fly to America and cook thiebou djenn after the birth of our first child. My imagination played that scene out in vivid detail, from the savory smell of garlic, fish, and jasmine rice, that simmered while I slept, to the Wolof lullabies that she sang to our infant daughter, her namesake. Amina Maguette’s daddy’s mama would adore her, showering her with kisses, making miniature boubous for her to wear to parties, and adorning her tiny round waist with prayer beads and Quranic verses. Amina Maguette’s mam would boast to all of her friends about her son’s wife’s generosity, beauty, and brains. The intensity of our love would overshadow Serigne, and we would fuss at him in unison for watching too much television.
Serigne’s sister Thian, 15 years his senior, had always been his third mother. I envisioned her as the embodiment of the Mama who I would never meet in the physical realm.
Twenty years into my dream, I wasn’t just on a family vacation to West Africa–I was finally going home to meet Mama.
My discomfort in the Jeep’s back seat was alleviated by the sweet scent of the freshly-picked mango juice that covered by daughter’s fingers, toes, and shirts. For the one of the few times in their lives, I was unruffled by their appearance. I smiled down at their rumpled, stained clothing, and went back to my view of the left side of the never-ending road from Dakar to Thies. This vantage point allowed for proud glances at my beloved, while he and his nephew engaged in a private joke in their mother tongue. I didn’t bother trying to pluck the random understood words from their stream. Instead, I reveled in the meeting between my imagination and reality.
My American lens searched for familiar destination markers that could enhance my sense of direction beyond the vast sea of red sand before us. Despite my 30+ years of driving experience in New York, L.A., and D.C., I was petrified of getting behind the wheel in the middle of the Earth. My city girl inner guide required signs, posts, stores, people, and a trusty GPS to get me to my destination.
Instead, we turned left at a goat.
The village rose from beyond the next crowd of goats that greeted us three yards into the turn. Baobab trees and goat poop pebbles sprinkled the sand, marking the path that led us to the front gate. I wondered how I could ever travel here alone. I realized that complete surrender was somewhere on the map to this sacred land.
Ndukman! I had waited over 20 years to finally set foot in the village that had given birth to my beloved—the place where my questions would finally be answered about him, us, our children…and me.
I held my hand to my heart, hoping to slow down my lunch’s sudden rapid digestion. I was finally in the land of the ancestors. This was the village that had been founded by their great-great grandfather, on the land that was eventually shared with an entire community. My children had been given permission to scoop the ground that had been stolen from every child who had lost their tribe to the generic, fabricated label of “Black”. Unlike me, my Wolof-African-American babies would know where they were from. Our moment, five hundred years in the making, had finally arrived.
Our Jeep pulled up alongside a horse cart full of children. We were greeted with the universal language of little boys, who giggled at the sound of our American English:
“Kum ovaaa hera”
Amina, age 15, and in the midst of chronic adolescent angst, caved under the pressure of her perceived public humiliation. I could not explain to her that these were not middle-school boys—they were village children, with bare feet, sun-kissed hair, and the gift of laughter.
I passed out presents to the women, finally feeling useful. Up to that point, I was not allowed to wash my own feet in the presence of any Senegalese women. In my wrinkled clothing, choppy Wolof, and sand-crusted feet, they still managed to make me feel like a rock star.
I mis-calculated the number of gift bags that I needed, and found myself short one bag for my nephew’s new bride. I grabbed the neat package of silver jewelry and cash that I had prepared for Thian, and promptly handed it to my niece. It seemed like the best decision of that moment, since Thian had not yet arrived. She was also slated to receive some of the cash that we had set aside for the family. Serigne assured me that $200 was enough for her. I needed it to be much more.
“Thian is here”, he whispered in my ear…
I pulled away from my imagination, and raced to the reality of finally meeting Mama Maguette’s daughter. I ran into her welcoming arms, inhaling the sweet scent of incense and yearning.
Namu na la…na mu na la (I miss you…I miss you). The weeping began at the balls of my feet, longing to re-attach my soul to its roots. The intensity of my tears pushed us both to the ground. This was our moment. I did not attempt to halt the emotion or sound.
After a few moments, Amina’s demanding voice shook me back to my American consciousness: “Mom, what are you doing? What are you doing?”
I wondered if I had held on for too long, if I were somehow demonstrating poor manners, in the presence of nobility. I slowly began to pull away.
“Togal fi…togal fi (Stay here…stay here). The invitation to fall back into the safety of her bosom was greeted with a fresh batch of tears and gratitude.
As I landed in her arms again, my brother-in-law Mortallah’s whisper greeted the song of my heart with, Ma shah Allah (This is pleasing to God). I knew that this was no longer a moment in time—it was my new forever.
I had always envisioned heaven as an island paradise of palm trees and golden light. Instead, I found it in the middle of goat poop, red sand, and scorching heat.
After dinner, she asked one of the boys to bring her a strainer and a water bottle. I watched her slowly purify the red sand of all remnants of waste. After softy whispering the Al-Fatihah, the ultimate healing prayer in Islam, she gently placed the priceless water bottle in my hands.
That bottle was the first souvenir that was shared with my family in the States. It remains on my bookshelf, surrounded by gold-plated photo albums of babies and ancestors, a permanent symbol of the moment when Mama held me in her arms and said, “Stay”.