Day Twelve: Les Jeux

Ahh … the games people play, in Toubacouta and around the world.

In the evening, after the heat of the day has floated away, the folks come out of their homes to be with their friends. In Canada we have the sport of curling, where large round stones slide down a sheet of ice towards a bullseye. In Senegal players loft heavy metal balls into the air, with backspin, trying to get close to a target rock. The atmosphere is intense. No smiles, but plenty of furrowed brows. As the game wound down, the young man in the picture made a brilliant shot, knocking his opponent’s ball away from the rock. There was no cheering … except for me. The grim intensity wore on.

Farther down the street, I came upon a game of checkers, or was it chess? Actually it felt like something different. Silence from the players and spectators hung in the air. All were focused on the wisdom of the next move. Strategies swirled in the space. I leaned closer, and at one point, reached toward a piece on the board. Truly a dumb move, designed solely to bring attention to myself. The gentleman on the right in the photo shot me a withering glance, and I slunk off to the edge of the gathering. The game continued amid a flurry of brain activity, with nary a muscle moving.

How about a shark face to lighten the proceedings? I had told the kids in Belmont, Canada that last December I’d played soccer with some children, using an empty peanut butter jar. Sophie, an 11-year-old student, suggested I buy some beach balls at the Dollar Store, and inflate them in Africa. Great idea! So I did.

As I lifted this ball to Nima, her face shone. She held it to her chest with such love. It was hers. Nima experimented with throwing it way high and especially liked tossing it backwards. It didn’t matter that her skills were marginal … the smile said all. I loved seeing her chase down the ball when it bounced away.

Now it was time for the Nima and Bruce show. High throws, bounces, wild kicks, rebounds off foreheads … we did it all. Just a simple beach ball was spreading the joy. Really playing the game was just a convenient excuse for laughing together. Nima and I were really good at that.

O Senegal … thanks for allowing me to be with you.

Day Eleven: Yesterday and Tomorrow

The Keur Saloum Hotel is a fifteen-minute walk along the dirt streets of Toubacouta from Jo and Lydia’s place. I walk through the entrance, greeted with a “Ça va?” (How are you?) from the security guard. I proceed unimpeded because I’m a white tourist with money to spend. The black residents of the village would not be allowed in, and that makes me sad. In the words of Werner Erhard, this is meant be “a world that works for everyone”.

Now I sit by the pool, writing these words. I see many pink blossoms floating on the blue of the water. Pink and blue … the colours of young children. I want the beauty of the world’s moments to endure but alas those flowers might block the water intake, or perhaps the pink ones might disturb swimmers. Whatever the reason, an employee is soon out there with a big net, and in minutes the blue is pure. I get the likely practicality but I’m sad once more.

What life of beauty and inclusion is available to us all? What richness of spirit can stroll through it all, reaching towards the future? Even if I don’t have the words to describe such a reality, I know it’s real.


For twenty years, Jo played guitar throughout Europe with a band. His life has been permeated with and enriched by music. Over the past few days, he’s spoken glowingly about a wide variety of luminaries – Hoagy Carmichael, Leonard Bernstein, Aretha Franklin, The Who, José Carreras … Back at the house, the little speaker often tells me about The Beatles. They’re really the only musicians from Jo’s heart that are in mine as well.

I remember the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1964 when the mop heads were introduced to North America. Fifteen-year-old girls in the audience were going crazy, leaping in the air and professing their love. I was that age as well, and although I kept my butt on the couch, I realized that there was something new here … and exciting.

I know many of The Beatles’ songs by heart. They’ve been absorbed through my skin, become part of me. However, I’ve never paid much attention to the words. Until yesterday, and Yesterday. The words came onto me as I sat innocently on the patio. Was I really hearing what I thought I was hearing? If so, have I allowed myself to be hypnotized over all these years? Have I become a different person than the oh so receptive teenager of the 1960s? The answer is “Yes”.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday

Oh no, I disagree. I face the future, not the past. I look back, sometimes fondly and sometimes shaking my head, but that’s not where my action is. I still have challenges, of course, but they are outshined by possibility, togetherness, smiles.

Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be
There’s a shadow hanging over me
Oh, yesterday came suddenly

I don’t think in terms of fractions, and whoever “me” is lies both within and far beyond the boundary of the skin. There is no weight coming down, except so very briefly. There is open sky, with room to roam to the stars.

Why she had to go I don’t know
She wouldn’t say
I said something wrong
Now I long for yesterday

There is companionship of the heart. It surrounds me. Jody has died and yet there is love on all sides. Some people some close, some back away. All is well. I say wise things. I say dumb things. And I keep saying …

Yesterday love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away
Oh, I believe in yesterday

No games. Open arms welcoming the world. Yes, I give myself time alone to renew but my home is in the marketplace of life, being with people.

Rather than “On I go” it’s very much “On we go”
Happiness is here

Day Ten: Chez Boum

Monsieur Boum is an institution in Toubacouta. His restaurant on a dirt street in the centre of the village draws many locals, a sure sign for tourists like me. Boum is a jolly fellow and remembered me with a big smile when I walked into his place yesterday afternoon. Last December, I believe I surprised the chef when I opted for snake rather than pasta. Delicious … just like chicken!

Jo, Moustapha and I were planning to have dinner at Chez Boum last night since the woman who cooks for them and Lydia was travelling to nearby Gambia for a funeral. Earlier in the day, I was at the house when Fatou heard the news about her beloved great grandmother. Moustapha told his wife in very fast French and I didn’t catch on right away. Seconds later, tears were rolling down Fatou’s cheeks.

At last year’s dinner, I sat on Boum’s patio and watched a young girl in a colourful patterned dress playing across the street. A wall of cement blocks framed her in the twilight. As I took in the same sight yesterday with a bottle of Coca-Cola Zero in my hand, there was only the wall. I missed the young one.

Refreshed, I strolled on in the heat. Hours later I returned to find Moustapha and Jo enjoying their beverages. They shone in the light of the patio. Against the wall there were voices in the dark, ghostly figures reclining in ghostly chairs.

Jo and I launched into some topic in English. Oh, I remember … it was the adventures of Baziel (his son), Olivia (his friends’ daughter) and Bruce in Canada last August. Jo and I flowed. He can flow in Flemish, English, French and German! After a few minutes, I actually noticed that we were speaking English, and remembered that Moustapha knew very few of those words. It made me happy to tell Jo that we should switch to French. Down deep, I knew that I’d soon be in the place where Moustapha currently was, and that was okay. I’m on a journey towards speaking the language well and there’s a long way to go.

Jo and Moustapha kept at it for at least twenty minutes. So fast, so expressive, so incomprehensible. I smiled while imagining me as one of those smooth “gens de français”.

Jo went for the steak, Moustapha for the chicken, and I for the very local fish. Our meals arrived beautifully displayed and the tastes were a perfect match for the sights. To be savoured.

Along came two Belgian fellows to the next table. They lit up. I coughed. They and I kept going with the activities of the moment. I looked at Jo and said “Je vais” (I’m going). And I meant it – delicious flavours or not. There was no place far enough from the smoke. The gentlemen got the hint and moved to the end table. Thank God. I whipped out my puffer and did the deed. Who knows why my lungs are so sensitive but they are. So be it.

Another glowing was Boum’s face as we oohed and ahhed through the meal. We were pleased, he doubly so. At the end we waved goodbye to our chef and walked off into the tropical night. Day was done, and our tummies were happy.

Day Nine: Just Like Home

I lay in bed this morning, watching the breeze flutter the leaves outside my window. Just like home. Nearby the mosquito netting billowed … ever so softly. The hush flowing through the tree was familiar. So was the growling of my stomach.

But then there’s all the rest …

Around 2:00 the morning before, I awoke to a choir of male voices, singing melody and harmonies in another language. Within the fogginess, I wondered if this was real. I still don’t know.

At 6:30 am or so, an hour before sunrise, another song is sung. The Muslim imam climbs the steps of the Toubacouta mosque and begins his long nasal notes. No words come to my ears but the tune easily enters in. There’s no doubt a holy message wafting over the village as he calls the faithful to prayer.

A piercing tone comes. It has to be man-made. It sounds so mechanical, like one of those kids’ whistles that squeals at different pitches as you work the plunger. But fear not … it’s completely natural – a bird unknown to North Americans. And unseen by this one.

Roosters and chickens make themselves known throughout the day. I’m able to make animal sounds, such as horses, cows, sheep, dogs, cats and assorted feathered creatures. Yesterday afternoon, I sat on Jo and Lydia’s patio and called back to the scurrying birds. The roosters looked confused. My fellow humans laughed.

Goats are everywhere in Toubacouta. Short little bleats come and go in the air. The brayings of the many wild donkeys last longer and somehow bring to mind science fiction novels. No doubt Stephen King could make good use of a few of them in his pages.

While dozing this morning, I was assaulted by raucous clapping. It sounded like The Price Is Right was happening outside my door. I haven’t seen any TVs in Senegal and this noise sounded so foreign to the flow of life in Africa. And after only three days here, it was foreign to me.

So … the feeling of home is broadening. It’s not about a particular continent, a particular culture. It’s where I can sink into, whatever the sounds around me.

Just like home.

Day Eight: The Language

I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon fresh from my digital copy of French All-in-One For Dummies. I’m no dummy but yesterday’s experiences among the French speakers of Senegal was truly humbling. Most of the folks here know either no English or just isolated words. My high school French knowledge has declined to muddled snatches of vocabulary and sentence structure. Guess that’s what 55 years of non-use will do to a guy!

I listened to a brisk conversation between Moustapha and Jo last night, with musical interludes as Jo improvised on his guitar to the compositions of Fleetwood Mac. The melodies were a blessed respite from the angst of understanding virtually none of the words flowing between the two. Surely I know some French!

As I sat back and shook my head sadly, I was in the middle of a deep “not knowing”. In my spiritual experiences of the past few decades, I’ve sometimes fallen into the wavery bliss of letting go, of not needing to be smart, coherent or even reasonable. Floating free in a land devoid of achievement, with nary a landmark to be seen. Being there isn’t scary anymore.

However, yesterday’s untethered state pulled me towards deficiency. I wanted to know the words, the meanings of the flowing sentences. And then … it was okay that I didn’t. The real now needed to be embraced as a whole experience. Tomorrow (now today) would give me the opportunity to return to the hotel and its WiFi, and to download the Dummies book. Monday evening was simply another version of all being well.

Earlier in the day, I was out walking with Mariama, the 20-year-old woman whom I’m sponsoring. She’s studying Math, World History and an unremembered science at school. We both sighed – long, exasperated ones – as we felt our inability to communicate. We were both sad. Last January, when I agreed to support Mariama, I knew I was coming back to Senegal right around now. So I had eleven months to improve my French. I did virtually nothing. The faraway yearning for contact didn’t get the job done. But yesterday’s tortured journey on foot together hit like a sledgehammer. And so I’m ensconced in a cozy chair at Keur Saloum, studying vocabulary and grammar.

How strange … I just threw in the word “ensconced”. It just came into my head. I love words. I love letting them spill out, and trusting that they’ll be good and true. It’s like a graceful dance, and such a contrast to my crawling en français. But hey … either way, I’m moving!

On we go, Mariama, Moustapha and Fatou

Day Seven: Nima

What can give you a true sense of Senegal? I have many moments to choose from yesterday but my time with Nima was the best.

She’s a four-year-old girl, the daughter of my friends Ice Tea (Moustafa) and Fatou. As I arrived around midnight a day ago, she was sleepily there to greet Jo and me. At the gate, Jo picked her up and said “She’s grown so much!” I looked over to see two eyes shining in the darkness. Soon she was asleep, and we adults joined in conversation. But those eyes remained in me.

Yesterday morning, it was Nima again, finding me from across the room. She wore a pink t-shirt and her hair fell in countless braids. What was going on that I had trouble maintaining normal conversation with the tall people? There was a power here, in a tiny package, that reached over to me. How we can affect each other.

Later she sat in the next chair and her smile shone. There was Beatles music in the background and I began drumming on the wooden arm of my seat. Nima did the same, and soon we had a beat going that would have made Ringo proud … a Senegalese kid and a Canadian forty-year-old giving ‘er in the percussion section of the orchestra.

As Nima drummed, she stuck out her tongue. And I realized that I’d never really noticed tongues before. Hers was so pink against the black of her skin.

The beat went on and so did we. I plopped my hand on hers briefly. She returned the favour, and soon we were trying to escape each other’s touches from above. And still we drummed, now to the songs of Neil Young. We laughed.

I don’t believe that Nima knows any English, and my French is slowly moving from marginal to moderate. No matter. We were rejoicing in the melodies of life.

Later in the day, we had visitors. Two young boys crammed a chair with Nima. It was her fourth birthday. Conversations in French bounced across the room. And the song with “anniversaire” in the lyrics burst out. Happy Birthday, dear little one. The song morphed to something else and the kids started dancing. Somewhere along the way, I picked up my phone and started videoing. I wonder if I can send it to you. Let’s try:

Une grande célébration! Parfait pour tous les gens.

Perfect for us all

Day Six: From Dakar to Toubacouta

It was six hours on the plane from Belgium to Senegal and then the journey really began. Goodbye to the world of winter coats and mittens. Lingering were long-sleeved shirts and jeans. Another world said hello. Ousmane picked Jo and me up at Dakar Airport (Lydia and the kids would be flying on Christmas Day). The sun was declining but the heat still made its way to my bones.

Like so many cities eastward across the pond, I never got to know Dakar. The airport was far away from downtown. The highway taking us four hours to the east was the only paved road I saw.

Minutes from our beginning, I saw my first wild donkey of the journey. Soon a few goats came meandering by. Later a pig or two emerged from the darkness to say hello. I remembered: this is normal here. And I remembered something else: people are everywhere, hanging with friends, some strolling casually about a metre from speeding traffic. I saw piles of huge green melons accompanied by a lone host, simple shops crammed inside and out with black folks, and huge tractor trailer trucks parked almost everywhere. A reddish dirt covered the land, broken up by scrubby bushes and strange-to-me overarching trees.

Jo announced that we were going to buy groceries in the next town – Mbour. I was expecting the tiny rooms and roadside stalls that I had seen last time in Senegal. But we pulled into the parking lot of what looked like a mini-Costco. “Woh. This does not compute.” Shopping carts. Rows of cans and packages. Counters labelled above within “Mon Boucher” (my butcher), “Mon Poissonnier” (my fishmonger) and “Ma Boulanger” (my baker). Checkout counters with conveyor belts and scanners. I was almost back in London, Ontario, Canada.

What snapped me awake were the folks walking the aisles. Women in startling colourful dresses with matching hair wraps. Some men (the unwesterned ones) flowing in their floor-length robes of white, grey and even turquoise. Babies snuggled low on their mommas’ backs. One stared long at some fellow from Canada.

Jo asked me to contribute to our carts. Bissap are bushes plumb with berries which Senegalese women harvest so that Africa can taste bissap juice and jam. Alas I couldn’t find any bissap jars. What was there was baobab jelly, made from the iconic baobab tree. I couldn’t resist. At this moment, I still don’t know what it tastes like. Soon I will.

Our carts were mostly full as we walked to the checkout. A young girl with purple hair was scanning the purchases of the previous customer. When the belt was clear, I started piling our items. I soon realized that the belt was not moving, so I began moving our stuff closer to her as she scanned. And I kept it up till we were done. At the end, she gazed at me sweetly and said “Merci”. I returned the sweetness.

Back on the road, the darkness illuminated all the moving human beings. Gas stations, storefronts, the front doors of homes were all places to gather. Wispy shapes blended with the chairs and trees.

Ahead, from my vantage point in the second row of the van, the rear ends of huge trucks loomed above. Time and again, the lorries crawled along at maybe thirty miles an hour. I breathed in their gas fumes and coughed. This went on for at least two hours and my lungs were sad. The rest of me was just plain tired. Toubacouta, dear friend, where are you?

We rolled in to Jo and Lydia’s home after midnight. In pretty much collapse mode, I sat down with our welcoming companions Ice Tea and Fatou, devouring a long loaf of bread lathered with a chocolate peanut butter spread.

And so to the closing of the eyes.

Day Five: Coughing and Hanging Out

So much happens in a day. I feel like focusing on just two aspects of Friday.


I’d been hoping that my head cold would dissipate in time for Senegal. Tylenol was doing some good but overnight on Thursday the coughing was getting deeper and more prolonged. The phlegm was going to yellow and brown, and there was lots of it. My travel memories have often included bronchitis. Did I really want to be going through that in a country that would have little medical assistance for me? Strangely the answer was long in coming.

I tossed and turned. I could just hope for the best. I only had one more day before flying and why rush around trying to find a doctor? An hour later, I marvelled at such logic. “Bruce! Your life matters. Go get some antibiotics because that’s probably what you need.” (Sigh) Okay, you’re right.

After considering the hospital a few kilometres down the road, I talked to Lore, the only one home. She thought her mom Lydia could set me up with her doctor. Within fifteen minutes, Lore had talked to her mom, Lydia found out that her doctor didn’t have time to see me, she got an recommendation for another physician, an appointment was set, and Lydia was driving home to take me there. Woh. There’s a woman on a mission!

An engaging young man of perhaps 30 welcomed me to his clinic. He examined me, asked some questions and zipped off two prescriptions – for an antibiotic and a powerful puffer. “An early stage of pneumonia. The antibiotics will stop that.” Wow. Fast, efficient and so kind. Plus my total cost for the examination and drugs was only $125.00 Canadian. Lydia drove me to the pharmacy, then back home, and then she was back to work. Thank you, my friend. I get to be safely in Senegal. Having no alcohol for a week is no problem.


The family had dinner yesterday at Anja and Curd’s home. Baziel is Jo and Lydia’s son and Olivia is Anja and Curd’s daughter. The teens spent two weeks with me in Toronto and London, Ontario last August. We had a marvelous time.

Last night there was a table for the seven adults and one for the five kids. The after dinner talk for us older folks was fast and furious and mostly in Flemish, which made sense. Someone would often add some English and I’d respond. After awhile, however, I wanted to sit with Olivia and Baziel, who were watching TV with a young boy. So I roamed over and added myself to the couch. The show was about a teacher becoming a mixed martial arts fighter but I couldn’t hear much of anything. The kids had Flemish subtitles to go by. There was far too much punching for me but I knew I would hang in.

I simply wanted to be with Baziel and Olivia, even though we weren’t talking. The three of us had formed a bond during the summer and it was still alive and well. We didn’t need to talk as the onscreen hero became even more heroic.

The kids presented me with a book of photos from our Canadian adventures. We did so many cool things. By far the best of the book were the inscriptions inside the front cover. Olivia said “Every woman wants to marry you.” That’s definitely not my impression but how sweet of her to say it. Baziel wrote “When I’m old and about to die, I will remember our time in Canada.” Oh, yes … so will I.


So life is profoundly good. The whims of the body can’t touch the majesty of the spirit. And that majesty resides in us all.

Day Four: A Walk on the Wild Side

I helped out for an hour yesterday at Lydia and Jo’s funeral services business, taking tape off a flat of urn boxes and then placing them on shelves according to colour. It felt great to contribute.

She had to continue working after that and suggested I go for a walk. Lydia knew of a scenic route that would take me into Oudenaard, where I could meet up with daughter Lore at 5:00 pm, after her exam.

Lydia wrote out detailed directions, naming all the streets and a few landmarks. As she told me all this, I followed along with Google Maps on my phone. Piece of cake!

Soon I was out and about on the streets of Maarkedal, joying in my touristic explorations. Ah ha – there’s the Boulangerie Vermeire that Lydia mentioned. A bakery sounds good to me. My purpose is not merely to admire architecture, but also to eat yummy food. Inside, a large custard tart beckoned me and resistance was futile. I munched as I strolled on, happy in the world.

The street curved past city hall and a towering church. Lydia’s directions were spot on. Okay, jog right at the t-intersection and find the sign for Ladeuze (a street). Yes, there it is. Now onwards to an imposing cream coloured house, then turn left onto a narrow paved path (about two feet wide).

The next half hour was bliss … fields to the left and right, cutesy homes out in the middle of nowhere, a stream cutting in from the left and accompanying me on my journey. A ringing bell came from behind and I made way for a smiling cyclist. And another. Then an unsmiling runner. We shared the path. Past a wee stone bridge, I climbed onto a vista of farm and home, clumps of trees and a meandering waterway. Such a gentle place was surrounding me.

And then …

No more named streets
No more juice in my phone
A niggly trembling in the heart

I paused. I breathed. I smiled. This was going to work out. I’ll guess about the turns. I’ll ask locals to point the way. I have Lydia’s list of street names. I’ll be there for Lore.

The path widened into a narrow road, with railway tracks joining me on the left. Ahead was a woman walking her dog. I never caught up with her to say hello. The land was slumbering under a grey sky.

“Turn left at the Nissan,” said the instructions, assuming I was on the road called Diependale. I wondered if that was a big assumption. I walked into a shop and faced a rough-looking fellow. “English?” I intoned. The reply was a vigorous shake of the head and a flood of Flemish. I pointed to “Diependale” on the sheet, and the gentleman shoved his hands downward, which I took to mean I was in the right place.

So onward, and soon a Nissan dealership presented itself. There was supposed to be a bridge over the Scheldt River but none graced my eyes. A gentleman was sitting on a bench. “English?” > “A little.” A minute later I was pointed to the river and city hall beyond. My step sprinted.

What astonishing beauty glowed from the walls of the building. I broke away from the wonderment as I realized I didn’t know what time it was, nor the location of the Tacambaro statue where Lore and I were to meet.

The solution was obvious: go into another shop. The woman inside was surrounded with jewelry displays, and was fully anchored in English. She went outside with me and pointed past the city hall. “Go straight. You’ll see the statue.”

And so it was. Lydia had shown me a photo of a young woman reposing in marble, and after several blocks a shining whiteness parted the moving cars and people. I stood beside the lady at 4:50 pm. Lore came along shortly thereafter.

It was a grand day for walking into the unknown, trusting that the goodness of the world would blossom.