In 1984, after years of living in Dakar, my parents decided to leave and build a new life in Australia.
We lived one and a half years in France, waiting for our immigration papers to be processed. We did not even know whether we would be admitted to Australia. All our stuff was in large metal crates, waiting to be shipped. During that time, I only attended school for 3 months. Originally the plan was to skip school and just catch up in Australia, but after an entire year of waiting, my mum gave up and enrolled us. Effectively, I skipped Grade 5.
During our time in France, the maid Marie-Hélène Sambou (in her late 20s from memory) flew with us to help my grandmother with housekeeping for 6 months. But soon enough, Marie-Hélène had to return to her native country. We missed her a lot.
I corresponded with her right up until I arrived in Australia. Months later, we stopped writing.
I recently found a postcard she had sent me in 1985, when I was 10. I have kept it because it meant a lot to me. You have to understand that she, as many Senegalese women from the villages, did not know how to write very well. So that she could write to me, aka, the little brat, she had to visit a trusted friend or literate person. She would dictate her letter, pay a price and the friend would write these words for her and send the card to the desired address. Receiving a card from her always made me happy and reminded me of my childhood in Dakar.
In this postcard, she makes an allusion to 2 little girls whose parents had hired her and whom we knew:
"Hello! It is with a light heart and great pleasure that I draft this letter to ask how you are and also wish you a Joyous New year 1985. I hope that God protects you and keeps you safe. Dear Laura, this letter is a secret between you and me. Once, you wrote to me to ask me whether Valery and Christelle are kind to me. You did well to ask this. I would like to tell you that Valery is very impolite. When I speak to her, she insults me on the spot. But Christelle is too kind, like you. She respects me a lot. I salute you. I dream a lot about seeing you again. Our separation has cost me dearly."
To be frank, I can't say I was very kind at all! Well maybe in later years, I was. And we grew very close then. But back in Dakar, I was capable of turning into a little monster. In my grandparent's appartment, we had a spare room where the maids kept their things (they slept at our place all week and only returned to their village during the weekend). This was their room and we were not allowed to touch their things. But when they were too busy with chores, and I was bored, I would often open their cupboard and play with their African combs, nail polish and toe rings. I also used their hair oil and once I spilled some oil inside the cupboard so that it was very obvious that someone had been there. Of course they enquired about this because it distressed them and my grandmother got me in trouble.
When I was 5, I used to think the maids had magical powers. Or at least that they could do things that I couldn't. Once, after walking home from school, I had asked Thérèse if she wanted some coconut. I shared a piece of my fresh coconut which she ate. But on returning home, I had a fit because I refused to have a shower. Nevertheless, it was my parents' wish and so half and hour later, Thérèse washed me while I bickered and whinged. I was so indignant at being forced to take a shower that I decided that Thérèse was annoying and that she didn't deserve my coconut. So right then and there, I imperiously demanded that she return to me my coconut or else I would dob on her and say that she had stolen it from me. Undeterred, Thérèse said, "Oh, you want your coconut? Ok." Then without fuss, she made this horrible regurgitating noise, spit all the ingested coconut bits in her palm and shoved her hand under my gobsmacked face. I took one look at the coconut bits floating in the saliva pool and was lost for words. After this, I confided to my sister that Thérèse was a witch. I mean, how did she vomit up only the coconut? Is that possible?
There are so many more stories and gosh, I do miss those two women, Marie-Hélène and Thérèse Sambou. They were cousins from Casamance, Sénégal. Has anyone heard of what happened to them? I would love to know where they are today.
Well anyway, eventually we made it to Australia. The custom officers raided our crates and we lost our carved ivory tusks, our leather poufs, our Calebasse bowls and all our wooden masks.
Growing Up in Dakar Part II
Growing Up in Dakar