Three Boys and a Suitcase
Sketches from Dakar
Sometimes moving to a new place means noticing more. You appreciate everything, take in the smallest details — the light falling on the river, the split-second delight on the face of the children passing by, holding ice cream. Your vision sharpens; you catch every nuance you would have missed at home.
When I moved to Dakar, this didn’t happen to me. Instead, during the first few months, I was almost entirely blind. I saw splotches of color walking the street, things whose name was only “new.” I didn’t venture out much — I’d get overwhelmed after a block, lost after two. I didn’t look at people while I walked; their looking back felt threatening. Thinking I wanted a ride, taxi drivers would honk at me twenty times on one walk. I’d get exhausted just from shaking my head.
Now, after three months, I’m starting to see. The pale pastel houses. The dark, dense, dear trees. The mosaic sidewalks, crumbling round the edges, that aren’t really for walking. They’re for setting up your fruit stand, sitting to chat with your neighbor, parking your car, ducking when a honking taxi prevents from walking on the sandy street. A sort of extended doormat, a different color for each home, they belong less to the pedestrians and more to the houses. Sometimes a tree or a car takes up half the sidewalk. Sometimes there’s a barrier right through the middle, separating one pattern of mosaic from the next.
I see all these things now. Dakar is a place, a stable backdrop to daily life. It has an atmosphere. Tufty clouds; strong contrasts of light and shade; warmth on your skin. The sweet smell of incense — a newness in the air felt the moment I arrived here, but only noticed when a guidebook named it. Fruit sellers’ melodic chants of the names of their offerings. Children singing. Goats bleating.
The people, though, still blur and disappear. Every moment in a taxi is a revelation — lost the next instant. A grain of Sahara sand falling through my fingers. The colorful clothes — yellow and turquoise, pink and purple, checkered, striped, polka-dotted, everything in between. I wish I could paint each one, but they vanish before I’ve so much as seen the pattern. And the people in the clothes? I lack the eyes to see them. Each face is characteristic — and forgotten as soon as it’s seen. A rounded profile; a glint of an earring; a toothy grin. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I see the sunlight on a face and not the face.
But I’m learning. On my walk today, I saw whole tableaux. A woman in a colorfully speckled dress carried a child on her back. Only the little girl’s head was visible, and her hair was studded with colorful clips, extending the pattern on the dress. Two boys, five or six years old, were the best of friends, arms draped round each other’s shoulders. Three others played with a suitcase — one sitting inside, another pulling it like a stroller or a wheelbarrow. Then they started zipping it up; the little boy, grinning, fit almost entirely inside.
Little boy, I know this delight too. I also grew up huddled around a suitcase, waiting for the next journey to sweep me across the ocean. I also have this joy: to find a snug corner someplace you’re not meant to fit. A pillow fort, a tree branch, a clearing in a forest.
A suitcase. A small scene in a foreign land.